A Congressional panel tasked with finding ways to improve the nation's freight transportation system issued its final report yesterday with suggestions that many have heard before but with no clear path toward paying for them.
The panel, comprising members of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, recommended that Congress direct the Secretary of Transportation to establish a national freight policy and to designate a nationwide multimodal freight network. Lawmakers should also authorize a dedicated and sustainable funding stream for projects of "national and regional significance." Projects eligible for such funding would have a national or regional impact on the overall performance of the multimodal freight network as identified by the Secretary of Transportation, the panel said. The recommendations also included a call to promote the speedy development and delivery of projects that facilitate the efficient movement of goods.
The panel, the first of its kind ever created, worked for six months to get to this point. It was established in April by Committee Chairman Rep Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), the committee's ranking member. The panel was chaired by Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn), and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) served as the panel's ranking member.
In comments to reporters after the report's release, the Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors (CAGTC), a group of more than 60 public and private organizations dedicated to increasing federal investment in America's intermodal freight infrastructure, chose to focus more on style than substance. Mort Downey, a former Department of Transportation deputy secretary and the coalition's founding member, said that although the panel's findings aren't new, "what's new is who's saying it." Downey said the idea that a bipartisan group of lawmakers could arrive at the same conclusion about the role of freight in the U.S. economy is in itself an achievement.
Leslie Blakey, the group's executive director, said the panel's report marks a significant about-face in Congress' perception of who should be in charge of managing freight policy issues. "It was not so terribly long ago that we were seeing a devolution to the states," she told reporters. The report is a "strong reversal of that direction," she said.
Downey said that all financing schemes are "on the table." Those include such concepts as a dedicated freight fee and even a national sales tax that would be used to support freight system investment.
In a statement, the American CHemiätry Council, which among other things represents chemical shippers that are captive to the railroads, urged lawmakers to use the window of opportunity to reform rail-pricing practices that have resulted in a 76-percent increase in freight rates since 2001. The chemical industry has been at war with the railroads for years, arguing that industry consolidation has given the railroads free rein to jack up prices to shippers that have little if any transport alternatives.