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Washington Distractions Hurt Freight, Leaders Say
Friday, 20 November 2009 13:19

Politicians’ fixations on issues such as health care are deflecting attention from crucial restoration of the transportation infrastructure and impairing the ability of American businesses to cope with the recession and revive the freight industry, three industry leaders said during a recent roundtable discussion.

Those key messages need to be driven home to Congress, the White House and the Transportation Department; said leaders from the Intermodal Association of North America, the National Industrial Transportation League and the Transportation Intermediaries Association during the event held recently and was sponsored by Transport Topics.

“Apparently, our government can do only one thing at a time—and that is health care,” said Bruce Carlton, president of NITL. “Like it or not, that is where we are. We are stalled. This city [Washington] is in neutral.”

Joni Casey, president of IANA, agreed.

“Maybe we can help Congress learn to multitask, because that ultimately is what is going to have to happen,” she said. “The infrastructure needs did not take a sabbatical during the recession. In fact, the deterioration continues. The infrastructure needs have only increased because of the lack of attention and funding.”

Meeting with Transport Topics staff before the Intermodal Expo and TransComp, scheduled for this week in Anaheim, Calif., the officials were united in their view that U.S. leaders need to focus on freight policy and funding now, as intermodal and other freight indicators show some signs of improvement.

In addition to calling for faster action in Washington, Carlton, Casey and TIA President Robert Voltmann, analyzed other issues, including the Transportation Department and environmental matters.

The three association leaders offered their comments as Washington officials also struggle with challenging economic and geopolitical decisions while long-term transportation issues are pushed aside, they said.

“We’ve got to move people to work and goods to market,” Voltmann said. “For the past several administrations, they have ignored all of it. This administration seems to be putting those decisions off yet again. We haven’t worried about keeping U.S. manufacturing in the U.S., which is a product of not being able to move freight to market efficiently.”

Getting the economy moving again is freight shippers’ top concern, Carlton said, noting that Americans have become more aware of the importance of transportation as “a well-oiled machine.”

“The process breaks down when the only discussion of transportation [in Washington] is Interstate 66 and the backups at every commuter rush hour,” Carlton added. “The long-term reauthorization that everyone is hoping for in point of fact is not happening. Maybe there will be a miracle—but it’s not very likely.”

Voltmann said the reauthorization process “was hijacked by health care and a new Transportation secretary that said we are not going to deal with it.” At the same time, however, he credited Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, for his readiness to get new legislation passed this year.

As politicians focus elsewhere, the freight business is showing signs of life.

IANA statistics show that domestic intermodal volumes have grown by 1.5% to 4% over the past several months, Casey said, consistent with economic indicators such as industrial production.

“You have to take, in this case, a little shorter window of comparison to see some of the positive indications,” she said. “If we continue to compare volumes to last year or the year before or the benchmark year of 2006, you are always going to come up short.”

The officials backed a fuel tax increase, also supported by American Trucking Associations, to pay for improvements—as long as the money is used for infrastructure.

“We have to stay with the tried and true funding mechanisms . . . and not throw those out because we have administration officials that feel, with the economic downturn, that people don’t want to hear or think about that [a fuel tax increase],” Casey said. “If you poll people who are sitting in traffic, I will guarantee you that they are willing to give you a couple of pennies more, at least, if they didn’t have to sit.”

“The most efficient tax the federal government has is the gas tax—it costs pennies to collect,” Voltmann said. “It’s needed to be adjusted for years. Make it a percentage instead of a flat dollar amount.”

“It’s a nearly perfect system,” Carlton said. “I don’t really know why we were collectively bamboozled the last time around and the second-to-last time around when it was fixed without an inflation adjustment. That was truly sticking our collective heads in the sand.”

They also broadly agreed on the need to set and follow through on federal transport policy priorities.

“It’s about prioritizing and focusing on areas of real need, even if that violates the fundamental Washington premise of spreading the wealth,” Carlton said.

Transport Topics, 11/16/2009