Future of Freight Transportation on the Minds of State, Federal Officials

In case you missed it, I have an article in the latest issue of Capitol Ideas that looks at efforts in some states to invest in transportation modes that serve freight. So I thought it would be a good time to take a look at some other recent freight transportation-related items from around the country.

  • Politico reports this week on an effort in Congress that could help revitalize the nation’s cargo ports in advance of the 2014 opening of an expanded Panama Canal. A group of lawmakers is supporting the RAMP Act (the acronym stands for Realizing America’s Maritime Promise), which would ensure that revenues from the Harbor Maintenance Tax, an ad valorem fee on cargo that goes into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, would all go towards port improvements. In the past, Congress has raided those revenues to fill unrelated budget holes. Annual dredging needs at the nation’s ports are estimated at between $1.3 billion and $1.6 billion. But over the past five years, annual expenditures have averaged less than $800 million. The Harbor Maintenance Tax brings in about $1.4 billion annually.
  • A recent policy statement from the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO laments the lack of a substantial maritime title in the federal surface transportation authorization bills under consideration in Washington. “This is a missed opportunity to acknowledge the importance of maritime to the nation and address the needs of America’s waterborne transportation system and its employees,” the statement reads. “More delay of important port and maritime policy action is not an option as our world competitors invest billions to boost their maritime transportation capabilities in the global economy.” The transportation workers labor organization supports the RAMP Act and a companion Senate bill.
  • Legislation introduced in the U.S. House and supported by the American Trucking Associations would replace the 12 percent federal excise tax on the sale of large trucks with a 6.3 cent per gallon increase in diesel fuel taxes, Truck News reported this week. ATA President (and former Kansas Gov.) Bill Graves laid out the case for the measure: “Revenues from the excise tax are only paid into the Highway Trust Fund when new trucks are purchased, but when truck sales slump, it puts even more pressure on the already overextended fund,” Graves said. “By collecting more in the diesel tax, the federal government could ensure a more stable and predictable source of funding for needed highway and bridge projects … Further, by cutting more than $15,000 from the cost of the average new truck, eliminating the excise tax will encourage purchases of trucks, providing a boost for manufacturing and accelerate the adoption of new technologies aimed at improving safety and fuel efficiency.”
  • The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported recently on the readiness of the Port of Virginia for dealing with the expected influx of large cargo ships when the Panama Canal expansion is complete. According to a senior official at the Virginia Port Authority, the port has several factors in its favor, including: the East Coast’s only unobstructed 50-foot-deep ship channel as well as authorization to deepen it to 55 feet, the biggest cranes in the world which are the only ones capable of handling larger ships loaded 27 containers wide, the most technologically advanced marine cargo facility in the Americas, direct service by two of the nation’s major railroads (Norfolk Southern and CSX), access to the interstate highway system and two-thirds of the nation’s population within a day’s drive.
  • In February, Dan Vock of Stateline looked at the scramble among other Eastern ports to keep up with Virginia.
  • The South Carolina Department of Transportation is leading efforts to develop a 20-year statewide multimodal freight plan focused on how to move freight from the Port of Charleston throughout the state, The (Orangeburg, SC) Times and Democrat reported earlier this year. The SC Department of Commerce, State Ports Authority and private sector partners are contributing to the plan.
  • “Preserving and Protecting Freight Infrastructure and Routes” is the title of a recent report from the Transportation Research Board’s National Cooperative Freight Research Program. The report identifies shortcomings at all levels of government that make it difficult to plan for freight needs and deal with potential conflicts between freight facilities and other land uses. Multiple federal agencies oversee parts of the nation’s freight network and none have authority over land use planning, where conflicts can be avoided, the report said. It is the local governments that have primary jurisdiction over land use planning in the United States but these local processes inadequately accommodate freight needs due to a lack of education among land use planners on freight concerns and other factors. Moreover, state and regional planning agencies do not typically have the authority to fill the gap in freight planning, the report said. Among the potential solutions to these issues, the report recommends that state enabling acts be amended to require that freight be one of the key elements that states, local jurisdictions and planning agencies account for in both transportation planning and land use planning. It also recommends that state and national associations related to planning or development should provide education and tools related to freight planning for city and county planners.
  • Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, now the co-chair of the Building America’s Future Educational Fund, often touts the importance of investment in port infrastructure. Rendell points out that the World Economic Forum now ranks U.S. port infrastructure 22nd in the world behind such countries as Iceland and Estonia. During a speech earlier this year at a policy forum in Jacksonville, Rendell noted that America’s 59 busiest ports were only operable 35 percent of the time, which has resulted in delays and backlogs that have increased the cost of goods going in and out of the country. He warned that the United States could face the prospect of losing millions of dollars in trade, as shipping companies seek alternative ports in neighboring countries capable of handling the larger ships that will pass through the Panama Canal beginning in 2014. “We need joint federal, state, local and private investment to turn around America’s infrastructure. It is something that cannot wait,” Rendell said, according to Port Technology International.