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Nov 3, 2017
Congressional Effort Launched to Improve Country's Intermodal Infrastructure
With a national need for updated highway, railroad, and port infrastructure ever increasing, a California representative has come up with a new way to pay for it all.
“We know that there are billions of dollars of investments we need in freight-centric projects -from grade separations to truck lanes to rail connections,” says Alan Lowenthal, who has recently introduced legislation calling for a 1 percent excise tax on all ground transportation of freight.
“My bill would create a longterm funding source to make these investments,” says Lowenthal of his National Multimodal and Sustainable Freight Infrastructure Act, also known as House Resolution 3001.
The legislation would additionally, Lowenthal continues, “make targeted investments in zero-emissions freight technology to mitigate the environmental and public health effects of goods movements.”
That the gap between what is collected through such initiatives as the federal fuel tax - today pegged at 18.4 cents per gallon - and what’s actually needed to update and improve the nation’s transportation infrastructure continues to widen is a given.
According to a recent American Society of Civil Engineers study, the gap is not only widening, but could prove, if not addressed any time soon, a real downer on the nation’s economy, reducing in the next decade the gross domestic product by about $4 trillion.
A staffer in Lowenthal’s Washington office, on background, notes that an unexpected problem affecting the amount of money required to pay for transportation infrastructure needs is a result of the simple fact that vehicles are increasingly more efficient.
And that’s not to mention the fact that people driving electric vehicles currently pay nothing.
Lowenthal, who represents California’s 47th Congressional District, which includes Long Beach, notes a second problem with the existing federal gasoline tax: “Because of inflation, that 18.4 percent per gallon (high for diesel) simply doesn’t buy as much as it did in 1993,” he says.
Lowenthal’s proposal, on the other hand, could raise at least $8 billion a year and would be, he says, “agnostic about the mode of transportation, meaning that Congress won’t have to assess the landscape every five or ten years to make sure that we are capturing the revenue we need to maintain our freight network.”
How to address America’s transportation infrastructure needs is hardly a new topic to policy makers, but one that has inspired a number of different solutions.
The Trump administration earlier this year unveiled a general proposal that would see $1 trillion spent over the next decade to modernize the nation’s freight corridors and commuter networks.
But Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has recently stated that the details of that plan will not be aired until Congress passes legislation reforming the nation’s tax code.
Another proposal, recommended by Trump, has called for the increased use of public/private partnerships to simply get things repaired, upgraded, or built.
“Those kinds of partnerships can very much be a great way to move a project forward,” says Elaine Nessle, executive director of the Washington-based Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors.
“There is a statistic that says about 20 percent of transportation infrastructure projects could be structured using a public/private partnership arrangement,” continues Nessle. “So it’s a relatively low percentage when you look at the full scope of work needed to be done.”
“On the other hand,” says Nessle, “20 percent is 20 percent, and in some instances these kinds of partnerships can be a terrific tool to move a project forward.”
Such partnerships have sometimes been seen with private companies who have longterm lease arrangements with port terminal operators.
“But at the end of the day,” adds Nessle, “it is still a federal responsibility to be making these investments to protect interstate commerce.”
Lowenthal agrees: “Our freight network is nationwide, and we know that bottlenecks anywhere affect all of us.”
“Crowded or crumbling interchanges mean delays, missed shipments, and ultimately less productivity for our economy, especially when manufacturers utilize just-in-time supply chains.”
Adds Lowenthal: “Federal investments can have the most impact when we make targeted investments at our pain points.”
Although the National Multimodal and Sustainable Freight Infrastructure Act has been officially introduced in the House, its chances of passage are currently unclear.
Nevertheless, says Nessle, “at least it is a proposal that is moving us in the right direction for the simple reason that we need to explore new revenue streams to pay for these investments.”