DOT’s comprehensive approach shakes out conflicts among modes

By Peter A. Buxbaum, AJOT

The major significance of unveiling a national freight transportation policy framework lies beyond (way beyond) the words written on the page of such a document. When Undersecretary of Transportation Jeffrey Shane presented a policy framework to a Transportation Research Board meeting in January, it probably attracted little notice outside of a small group of federal and state transportation officials and interest groups.

The framework itself seems fairly noncontroversial on its face, laying out a proposed transportation policy based on seven objectives. These objectives include improving efficiency, increasing capacity, using pricing to enhance productivity, removing unnecessary regulatory burdens, proactively addressing emerging needs, promoting safety and security, and mitigating negative environmental impacts.

But transportation officials and interest groups know how to read such a document. The significance of the policy choices the framework embodies can be discerned by their reactions to it. For example, the very use of the word transportation is significant. The policy document attempts to lay out a comprehensive approach to freight policy that ignores the traditional modal stovepipes. Industry interest groups are organized along modal lines and each pushes in directions most favorable to its constituency. Thus, highway advocates in the trucking industry fear that comprehensiveness will detract government support from their interests, while intermodal supporters laud an overarching approach. Some of the same conflicts can be seen within some of the more specific policy choices.

‘We got all the modes together to work on this document,’ said George Schoener, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy in the US Department of Transportation. ‘It’s a good example of how the department can work together across modes.’

‘The seven objectives are right on,’ said Jean Godwin, executive vice president and general counsel of the American Association of Port Authorities and co-chair of the Freight Stakeholders Coalition. ‘The department hit the important ones and it’s significant because it goes beyond highways and surface transportation to include inland waterways and port dredging considerations.’

A contrary view was expressed by Darrin Roth, director of highway operations at the American Trucking Associations. ‘We think the first priority should be the highway system that moves 68% of the tonnage in this country,’ he said.

Roth added that the shortage of qualified drivers remains the most significant challenge to the trucking industry, and will continue to be so for at least another decade. ‘We are currently short one-hundred and ten thousand drivers which means we have to pay drivers more,’ he said. ‘That increases transportation costs as well as manufacturing and retailing costs.’

Perhaps the biggest controversy over specific DOT policy proposals relates to its third objective, which proposes to use ‘pricing to better align all costs and benefits between users and owners of the freight system and to encourage deployment of productivity-enhancing technologies.’

‘This includes instituting variable pricing in terminals such as the PierPass program that was initiated in the ports of Southern California,’ said Schoener. ‘The strategy was designed by the private sector which was losing efficiency by not operating 24/7. If you go to longer hours you have more opportunity to make moves at night. PierPass did that and within a matter of weeks you started to see improvements on local freeways.’

Truckers, however, deny the efficacy of that program. ‘Imposing pricing tools on the trucking industry doesn’t work,’ said Roth. ‘Trucking companies are not the ones making decisions about when deliveries and pickups are made. The shipper does that and it’s difficult for the trucking industry to make those decisions. If you think pricing incentives will change delivery schedules, you’re