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Speeches Won’t Build a 21st Century Freight Transport System

Pearl 3

On any given day in Washington someone important makes a speech about the need to invest in our passenger and freight transportation system and put Americans to work.  Routinely that speech doesn’t answer the only question that matters: how do we pay for it?  We helped to answer that question today at a special House panel hearing on freight issues.

Our message was that the government can’t “abdicate” its responsibility to lead on freight transportation policy and funding.  And abdicate it has for much of this generation as our transportation infrastructure is, as I pointed out today, “barely cracking the top 25” worldwide.

Our members are at the center of this debate.  They work in freight rail, port/maritime, aviation, highway and trucking and without them there is no freight transportation system.  They move what the panel has identified as 17.6 billion tons of goods valued at over $18 trillion.  The Department of Transportation projects that tonnage will soar 70 percent by 2020, with some gateways experiencing a tripling of freight volumes.  That fact alone should frighten our elected leaders to get something done.

The problem is that while every analysis concludes that our transportation system is harming our economic interests and stunting job creation, we suffer from decades of neglect, failed small-government policies and plain old lack of political will.

In addition to crumbling roads and bridges, the capacity of our waterways to receive ever-larger vessels is deficient, our railheads often are located miles from the ports, and our aviation technology is riddled with inefficiency and funding delays.  Visualize bottlenecks, breakdowns and added costs of doing business – hardly the blueprint for a 21st Century economic renaissance.

Today I offered a handful of steps that could be taken right now:

  • Pass the bipartisan Harbor Maintenance Tax reform legislation to allow disbursement of federal funds collected for their intended purpose: port maintenance.  Today the fund carries a $7 billion balance and only a fraction gets spent.
  • Tell Americans and businesses the truth about the need to raise the federal gas tax and index it to inflation as a way to restore funding to the Highway Trust Fund, which will become insolvent by 2015.  It’s bad business to rely on a funding source that hasn’t been increased in 20 years and whose buying power is down by 33 percent.  And without action, our public transit, highway and bridge investments will virtually evaporate.
  • Secure funds to fully implement the Federal Aviation Administration’s new satellite-based air traffic control system – NextGen – and end the era of forcing the FAA to manage through funding crises like the sequester nightmare.  As thousands of flights are delayed or cancelled and our air cargo network also feels the squeeze, we told the panel that it is time to end the sequester and put FAA employees back to work.

Transportation workers are on the front lines of making our freight system work.  It is time for Congress and the President to get beyond speeches and put a serious proposal on the table – laced with less rhetoric and more money – that will be there to retool, expand and modernize the way we move freight.

You can read more about our proposals here.

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