Freight Transportation Gets the Spotlight in Washington & Elsewhere

The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee this week passed a bill that would update federal freight transportation policy. Also, the latest round of TIGER grant recipients announced this week includes a number of projects to improve freight facilities around the country. But those two stories are just the tip of the iceberg as far as freight transportation is concerned. As a follow-up to our recent Capitol Research brief on how states are “Developing Freight Transportation Alternatives,” here’s a round-up of some recent freight news.

The Commerce Committee is one of four panels that share responsibility for surface transportation authorization legislation. The bill (S. 1950) approved at a hearing Wednesday would create and implement goals and objectives for the overall transportation bill, create a coordinated national policy for freight and ports across the country and help ensure federal dollars are used to build streets safe for all users. The committee incorporated elements of legislation first introduced last year known as the FREIGHT Act (it’s an acronym for Focusing Resources, Economic Investment, and Guidance to Help Transportation). Committee Republicans objected to its inclusion because they argued more time was needed to review its provisions to determine its potential impact on the Highway Trust Fund.

S. 1950, as passed by the committee, establishes an Office of Freight Planning and Development at the Department of Transportation, which would be charged with creating a national strategic plan for freight. In addition, it includes a multimodal grant program for freight infrastructure projects aimed at relieving bottlenecks, areas of congestion and other factors hindering freight movement. Streetsblog Capitol Hill, Transportation for America and Progressive Railroading all have more on the legislation.

TIGER Grant Recipients Include Freight, Port & Rail Expansions

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood this week announced the latest round of grant recipients for the U.S. DOT’s TIGER program. TIGER, which stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Program, was originally created as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and helps fund multi-modal, multi-jurisdictional transportation projects that promise significant regional or national benefits. LaHood announced that 46 transportation projects in 33 states and Puerto Rico will receive a total of $511 million from the latest round of grants, which generated more than 800 applications (you can see the full list of recipients and a map of where they’re located here).

According to DOT, 12 percent of the TIGER funding will go to help build port projects, while 10 percent will go to freight rail projects. Forty-eight percent will go to highway and bridge projects.

Among the grants:

  • $18.5 million to repair the DelAir Bridge, linking the rail networks of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The repair of the bridge will allow it to accommodate heavier rail cars and handle projected growth in freight movement throughout the northeast region.
  • $17 million to improve lead tracks to two rail yards and relieve a chokepoint at an overcrossing where cargo enters or exits the Port of Long Beach, California. The project is expected to improve efficiency, reduce the environmental impact of freight movements and enable the port to move 35 percent of goods via on-dock rail by 2035.
  • $16.7 million for Port of New Orleans Rail Yard Improvements including construction of an intermodal terminal. The project is designed to reduce congestion, facilitate the movement of marine and rail cargo, stimulate international commerce and maintain an essential port asset.
  • $15 million to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to help expand Norfolk Southern’s Rutherford intermodal facility near Harrisburg. Pennsylvania leaders hope the project will allow Harrisburg to handle projected increases in freight rail traffic over the next few years. They also say it will reduce the number of long-haul trucks on Pennsylvania roadways by 600,000 a year.
  • $12 million for a long-planned intermodal terminal along Norfolk Southern Railway’s Heartland Corridor near Prichard, West Virginia, which will provide industries in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio more modern and efficient freight container service and enhanced access to international rail lines. It’s believed that fewer long-haul truck trips may also result from completion of the new terminal.
  • $12 million to construct an interchange for I-95 and U.S. 301 in Orangeburg, South Carolina, which is essential to further development of an inland multimodal distribution center that serves the southeastern seaports of Charleston and Savannah.
  • $11.6 million to replace two deteriorating freight rail bridges, known as the Muldraugh Bridges, in Kentucky. The bridges are part of a rail line that delivers coal to Louisville Gas & Electric, which generates power for Louisville and Eastern Kentucky.
  • $10 million to complete a centralized freight facility at the crossroads of I-15, Highway 2 and the Great Northern Railway in Shelby, Montana. The project, which is known as the Port of Northern Montana Multimodal Hub, will enable Montana shippers to ship and receive containerized international cargo. It is expected to create jobs, reduce transportation and shipping costs for Montana businesses, and make it easier to export Montana agricultural products worldwide through West Coast ports. By relocating rail facilities away from a residential and commercial area to an industrial park, the project will improve safety for non-freight traffic. Increased use of rail instead of trucks is expected to reduce roadway maintenance costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • $10 million for rail improvements at the Port of Jacksonville, Florida including completion of a new Intermodal Container Transfer Facility that will be used by CSX railroad. It’s expected to enable a large-scale reduction of long-haul truck trips from highways and local roads.
  • $9.8 million to deploy Intelligent Transportation System improvements on and around four Mississippi River bridges in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. The project will include real-time river monitoring systems that will provide information for barges traveling beneath the bridges.
  • $6.7 million to upgrade 49 miles of state-owned rail line in Oklahoma to more efficiently and safely transport crude oil and gas to refineries.
  • $6.5 million to upgrade freight railroad track in north central Kansas, which is currently restricted by weight and speed limits. It’s expected to avert a dramatic spike in heavy, rural truck traffic as the agricultural economy evolves.

Other Freight Transportation News of Note

  • The (Charleston, SC) Post & Courier reported this week that a project to deepen the Port of Charleston to 50 feet to accommodate larger container ships is unlikely to get done before 2024. The project still awaits federal approval and funding. A study is underway that could take five to eight years to complete. But the summer of 2014 looms large. That’s when the expansion of the Panama Canal will be complete, allowing larger ships to more easily access East Coast ports. (An executive from BNSF Railway said in October he doesn’t think West Coast ports will lose much market share from the Asian trade when the Canal widening is complete, The Journal of Commerce reported). You can read more about the Port of Charleston’s expansion plans (and see some pictures of the port) in my blog post from last year on the Southern Legislative Conference’s annual meeting.
  • Politico reported last month on the impact of the Congressional ban on earmarks on port modernization projects.
  • Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last month blogged about his recent visit to the Port of Savannah, its plans for expansion and how maritime transportation is an important and underutilized avenue for commercial shipping.
  • In a separate blog post, LaHood touted the Maritime Administration’s release of 11 new designs for vessels specifically engineered to operate on America’s Marine Highways.
  • The environmental impact of port deepening projects has been in the news recently. The Miami Herald reported last month on a petition filed by environmentalists objecting to a project to dredge, widen and deepen the Port of Miami, saying the plans threaten water quality, coral reefs and marine life. Environmental groups in Georgia and South Carolina have also challenged South Carolina’s approval of a dredging permit for the Savannah River, The Journal of Commerce reported last week.
  • The state of Oregon has a program called Connect Oregon that provides funds to air, marine, rail, transit and other multimodal projects statewide. The 2011 legislature approved $40 million in lottery-backed bonds for the latest round of program funding. The Oregon Department of Transportation reported earlier this month they’ve received 70 applications requesting a total of $84.6 million.
  • The Baltimore Sun had an interesting article last month on the rise of the Port of Baltimore and efforts to revive the Port of Norfolk (VA).
  • In my recent brief on “Developing Freight Transportation Alternatives,” I write about the CREATE program in Chicago, a series of 67 projects aimed at speeding up freight, commuter and intercity rail. The Transport Politic blog had more about the CREATE program in this October blog post.
  • The Transport Politic also reported recently on a plan to allow freight trains to run on the same tracks as passenger trains in Charlotte, North Carolina.
  • National Public Radio’s All Things Considered had a segment recently on how barge companies are banding together to seek federal assistance to improve river infrastructure and allow them to move more freight.
  • The Federal Highway Administration this week hosted a webinar on the freight elements included in MAP-21, the bipartisan two-year authorization bill passed recently by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Among those on the webinar was Darrin Roth, Director of Highway Operations at the American Trucking Associations. He told webinar listeners: “We are concerned about new or expanded eligibility (for federal funding) for non-highway projects including for freight rail and marine transportation projects. That frankly dilutes the highway program and takes away from money we believe should be directed towards highways.” Roth lamented the bill’s low level of proposed funding for the National Freight Program--$4.1 billion over 2 years or 5 percent of the total bill. “There are projects out there that by themselves would cost $4 billion. Therefore we feel that the money that’s available under this program should be better directed. We do oppose the 10 percent set-aside for freight rail and maritime projects and port project eligibility … We are glad that there is a new core program for freight and that most of the money will be going to highways but given the low funding levels, we feel that eligibility should very much be narrowed at most to the National Freight Network but we’d like to see it narrowed even more than that. I guess as a political reality here every state has to get a piece of that pie in order for it to be acceptable and to be able to get enough votes to make it through the committee and through Congress.”