Brookings Institution calls for sweeping reforms in US freight policies


Reynolds Hutchins, June 16, 2015,

The U.S. government needs to take on sweeping reforms and new national policies if it intends to address the mounting congestion at the nation’s major port cities, the Brookings Institution said in a pair of new reports released today.


According to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, it is the nation’s largest cities that are most in need of future federal attention and investment.


“While the country prides itself on an enormous inventory of port facilities across all transportation modes, a small collection of 25 port complexes are responsible for 85 percent of all international goods trade by value,” the reports say.


These complexes are housed in the largest metropolitan areas that not only house most producers and consumers, but also stand at the intersection of most major highways and railroads. Moreover, only 4 percent of international goods passing through ports start or end in the same local market, according to the reports.


“In other words, ports primarily serve other places,” the reports say.


The result: Congestion in just one of the nation’s major port cities can create major costs for producers and consumers nationwide.


Federal policymakers in the U.S., however, have tended to view ports and their surrounding infrastructure as localized matters. In the process, the federal approach to investing in those assets has been disjointed and at times nonexistent.


The country’s major gateways are connected, though, to themselves, the rest of the nation and to the national economy. The remedy, therefore, can only be sweeping reforms and a broader national approach to investing in U.S. transportation infrastructure, the think tank concluded.


“To improve the flow of goods in and out of the country’s busiest ports — and thereby increase global competitiveness for the entire country — freight policy will require reforms at all levels of government,” it says.


While the reports did not go into detail as to how policymakers could pursue a broad multimodal policy framework, they did give some suggestions.


“Spreading financial resources too thinly ignores the concentration of economic activity,” the reports say. Policymakers should redirect funds to ports moving the bulk of the country’s international goods, a change that will ultimately benefit all U.S. markets.


For seaports, this would mean continued development and transparency of the Army Corps of Engineers’ project selection process and more targeted investments from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. For airports, this could mean reforms of the Airport Improvement Program. And for all ports, including border crossings, it means funneling Customs and Border Protection facility investments and operational support to those ports most in need.


Additionally, surface transportation funding formulas need to be readjusted, the think tank suggests.


“A reformed surface program,” it says, “should work with states to prioritize maintenance of those assets based on clearer formulas and economic criteria, including the value and tonnage of interstate goods as well as the total international value and tonnage moved at statewide ports.”


Of course, the Highway Trust Fund, which maintains America’s roads, bridges and would ostensibly support projects under such a reformed surface program as well, has faced chronic shortfalls. For years, federal lawmakers have relied on short-term extensions of the fund just to keep it from insolvency. Today, the trust fund technically expires July 31.


The Brookings Institution does not attempt to go into detail as to where future revenue sources for the trust fund can be found, though it does float one or two ideas that Congress has routinely shot down. It does, however, indicate where those funds should be spent should they be found.


“The remaining funding — whether through traditional sources like the gas tax or new freight-based revenue — should support competitive, multimodal programs that reward metro areas and rural locations that move the most goods and have specific infrastructure needs.”

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