Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced the first-ever National Freight Strategic Plan recently. The plan offers a sweeping vision of the entire U.S. transportation system, including mention of ports and waterways.
The plan lists four “guiding principles of action” for federal involvement in freight policy:
• Modernize or eliminate unnecessary or duplicative regulations that inhibit supply chain efficiency, reduce incentives to innovation, delay project delivery or raise costs to shippers and consumers, while protecting safety and environmental outcomes.
• Improve cross-sector, multi-jurisdictional and multimodal collaboration to enhance intermodal connectivity and first- and last-mile connections, streamline interstate policies and regulations and support multi-state investment.
• Provide targeted federal resources and financial assistance to support freight projects that provide significant benefits to the national economy.
• Invest in freight data, analytical tools and research to enhance the abilities of state, regional and local agencies to evaluate and address freight issues.
The first principle reflects one of President Donald Trump’s priorities. The second principle echoes the second of four principles for infrastructure investment of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which recommends “an integrated systems approach.”
The investment crisis in our transportation infrastructure is widely recognized. ASCE’s 2017 “infrastructure report card” grade was a dismal D+, the same as in 2013. Addressing this crisis becomes even more urgent if our country is to partially “decouple” from Chinese supply chains and meet the challenge of China’s Belt and Roads initiative.
The plan’s several mentions of ports and waterways could be significant, since U.S. transportation policy tends to be “siloed” in different congressional committees, agencies and funding streams. In recent years, policy makers and legislators have sought to increase recognition of intermodal freight issues. The Maritime Administration’s Marine Highway Program, for instance, has helped promote the idea of ports and waterways as integral parts of a multimodal transportation system. Waterways infrastructure investment progress has been made in the last couple of Waterways Resource Development Acts and is being made as Congress negotiates the current WRDA bill.
Could the National Freight Strategic Plan and its systems approach be used to help inland ports and waterways get access to transportation grants and funding streams previously targeted exclusively to one mode? That would certainly be an enlightened approach. It would fit in with the goals of increasing cross-modal and cross-agency cooperation.
As a statement of good intentions, the National Freight Strategic Plan is an invitation to Congress to be more holistic in its transportation investment decisions and a promise to better target the funds it provides.
An integrated, holistic approach to transportation needs and funding benefits everyone. Now let’s see it happen.