The Problems With Ports, or Why We Need a National Freight Act

Maybe you commute by train, or maybe you've switched from driving to biking. But your stuff is still traveling the country by diesel truck.

port_of_oakland_noaa.jpgContainers at the Port of Oakland. Photo: NOAA
Nearly a quarter of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions come from freight. The movement of goods from port of entry to a store near you throws enough particulate pollution into the air to shorten the lives of 21,000 people each year, according to the Clean Air Task Force.

The freight sector is lumbering under inefficient and outdated systems that cause pollution, public health problems, safety hazards, and delivery delays. There’s never been a coordinated national approach to solving these problems. And with no deliberate strategy, the default approach is often to build more highways.

As Stephen Davis of Transportation for America writes:

If a port is congested or wants to expand, there’s little available federal money to spend directly on rail or any other mode. Your choices are highways or highways. When a state or port does spend to improve operations, there is no accountability to make sure they’re actually reducing port/freight congestion, moving freight faster, or reducing air pollution in surrounding communities.

Enter the FREIGHT Act. (That’s the Focusing Resources, Economic Investment and Guidance to Help Transportation Act of 2010, with true Capitol Hill acronym panache.) The FREIGHT Act was introduced in the Senate toward the end of July and in the House a week later.

The bill focuses on areas known as "connectors," said Kathryn Phillips of the Environmental Defense Fund. “All the literature and studies say it’s the connector areas, the hubs, where you have the most congestion and environmental impacts.” The bill calls for troubleshooting at these bottlenecks, where products are transferred “from boat to truck to another truck to rail” and everything gets bogged down. Trucks get stuck in traffic; trains sit on the tracks; ships idle at port.

Communities near international ports pay the price. In Riverside, California, traffic gets tied up at 26 at-grade rail crossings 128 times a day when trains pass. Add to that the noise and pollution nearby neighborhoods must contend with.

“We don’t just want to pay for asthma filters for schools,” said Isaac Kos-Read of the Port of Los Angeles. “We want to fix the emissions problem from the ground up.”

Meanwhile, the bridges near the Port of LA are in alarming condition. The Schuyler Heim Bridge is expected to fail in the next major earthquake. The Gerald Desmond Bridge -- which carries 15-25 percent of all cargo containers coming into country, according to Kos-Read -- wears a “diaper” to catch chunks of falling concrete.

The Port of Oakland is struggling with antiquated rail lines over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, said port spokesperson Matt Davis. “Some of the tunnel clearances are not high enough to accept double-stacked containers,” he said. State assistance to fix the problem didn’t come through. Davis is convinced a national approach is needed to address problems like these.

“We’ve seen previous projects of national and regional significance end up in the earmark process, and what you get is some random highway in Ohio,” said Davis. “It’s a hopscotch approach, not looking at it as one coordinated freight corridor.”

Kos-Read agrees. He added that Canada is giving the U.S. an added incentive to pull together to improve the freight sector -- or else “Canada is going to eat our lunch.” Canada has articulated a national freight plan -- and it's marketing itself to Asia as the gateway to “North America’s economic heartland.”

The FREIGHT Act would mandate the creation of a National Freight Transportation Strategic Plan, as well as a permanent Office of Freight Planning and Development within the U.S. Department of Transportation. It would also start a grant program to focus funds where they’re most needed.

The legislation seeks not just to improve efficiency, but also to reduce “air, water, and noise pollution and impacts on ecosystems and communities.” It sets goals for improved outcomes, like improving travel time reliability, cutting 40 percent of carbon emissions, and reducing freight transportation-related fatalities by 10 percent.

How those outcomes are achieved will be up to the new office and the strategic planners to figure out. It stands to reason that some trucking will be replaced with rail, or short-sea shipping, but none of that is prescribed in the bill.

Don’t expect this legislation to follow the normal process of How-a-Bill-Becomes-a-Law. Its introduction in the House is, in part, a product of the slow pace of the massive transportation re-authorization bill, which seems to be proceeding on a glacial time scale. While it stalls, lawmakers are picking off pieces of it to work on.

But Transportation Committee Chair Jim Oberstar (D-MN) is “not fond of doing things piecemeal,” according to committee staffer Jim Berard. “He feels the authorization bill should be a comprehensive approach to surface transportation issues.” So the FREIGHT Act, in the House, is likely to be folded into the larger transportation legislation, and not passed as a stand-alone bill.

It works a little differently in the Senate. The Commerce Committee will take up the FREIGHT Act, while the Environment and Public Works Committee takes up the highways portion of the re-authorization, and other committees bite off their pieces of the transportation pie. Those various committee measures will then form the Senate’s transportation proposal.

However it gets done, port operators, environmental justice advocates, and supporters of transportation reform agree that it needs to get done.