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Posts from the "Freight" Category

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Trucks and Cities Are Like Oil and Water. Is There a Solution?

This freight truck killed 73-year-old pedestrian Ngozi Agbim in Brooklyn this June. Photo: Daily News via ##http://www.streetsblog.org/2013/06/25/ngozi-agbim-73-killed-by-truck-driver-at-crash-prone-brooklyn-intersection/##Streetsblog NYC##

This freight truck killed 73-year-old pedestrian Ngozi Agbim in Brooklyn this June. Photo: Daily News via Streetsblog NYC

About 350 pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists are killed each year by large trucks in this country. Big freight trucks are incompatible with cities in many ways, bringing danger, pollution, noise, and traffic congestion. They park in bike lanes and have shockingly big blind spots, putting everyone around them at risk. And yet, most cities haven’t found a way to reconcile the need to move goods with all their other priorities.

Meanwhile, as more and more cities prioritize walkability and bike-friendliness, they often neglect the task of reconfiguring freight logistics.

As part of the MAP-21 transportation bill, U.S. DOT convened a Freight Advisory Committee to help inform the creation of a national strategic plan for freight transportation. One of the advisory panel’s six subcommittees focuses on the first mile/last mile problem, but even that one subcommittee is reportedly more concerned with port access than delivery issues at the destination. The interplay between urban freight transportation and smart growth is far from a core focus of the committee.

It should be a top priority for urbanists and complete streets advocates, though. If we don’t help cities plan for freight movement, what we’ll get is unplanned freight movement, and all the chaos that comes with it. About 80 percent of freight in cities is delivered by trucks, and those trucks pose a significant threat to livability.

Loading and unloading slows traffic and takes up street space. When businesses do have dedicated loading docks, they reduce available space for the business and for the pedestrian activity that enlivens urban spaces. Then there’s noise pollution, air pollution, and safety concerns.

And yet, our cities run on the goods these hulking trucks deliver — and the garbage they take away. (Yes, trash pick-up is a freight question too.)

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Freight Panel Chair Says House Will “Balance Out” Transportation Modes

This article was adapted from an earlier report on Streetsblog NYC.

A Congressional road show on freight arrived in New York last Friday afternoon, bringing together air, trucking, and rail industry representatives to testify before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s freight panel.

Rep. John Duncan (R-TN) said in New York City that his freight panel would try to "balance out" the modes of transportation. Photo by Michael Patrick in KnoxNews

While the House is holding hearings like this one, U.S. DOT is working toward its own national freight plan with its Freight Advisory Committee, and top officials there have expressed a desire to prioritize some modes over others. “We want to keep goods movement on water as long as possible, and then on rail as long as possible and truck it for the last miles,” Deputy Secretary John Porcari said in 2010.

On Friday, Streetsblog asked Rep. John Duncan, a Republican from eastern Tennessee who chairs the freight panel, if he agreed with Porcari’s modal hierarchy. “Yes,” he said. ”It’s the goal of I think almost everyone in transportation to emphasize rail and water transportation a little bit more than it’s been emphasized in the past, and I think we can do that,” he said. “Everyone on this panel is very focused on trying to balance out our transportation a little bit more than it is at this time.”

“We’re getting close to the time that we’re going to put out our report and our recommendations,” Duncan said, adding that recommendations could be enacted in future transportation bills or separate pieces of legislation. Duncan noted that the freight panel is modeled on a House Armed Services Committee panel on reforming acquisition in the Department of Defense. “Several of their recommendations were actually passed into law,” he said.

Pat Foye, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said that the Port Authority is working with transportation departments in New Jersey, New York state, and New York City on a comprehensive regional freight plan. He also said that infrastructure replacement projects should receive speedier environmental review, citing the Bayonne Bridge and the Tappan Zee Bridge – which will build a new, wider span without additional transit investment — as examples of the Obama administration expediting the environmental review process. “The case is clearer with a project like the Bayonne,” Foye said. “We’re not building a bridge or knocking a bridge down.”

As Streetsblog reported yesterday, an amendment to the Senate appropriations bill from Louisiana Republican David Vitter would entirely exempt projects like the Tappan Zee Bridge widening from the environmental review process.

Last week’s hearing also included a status report on the long-discussed Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel between New Jersey and Brooklyn.

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Meet the Big Brains Shaping a New Freight Policy for the U.S.

On Thursday, U.S. DOT announced the 47 people who will make up the new Freight Advisory Committee, tasked with coming up with a cohesive, strategic vision around freight movement in the United States. Freight crosses state lines and travels on every mode imaginable, but there is no national agency to coordinate all this movement of goods, resulting in a chaotic and fragmented approach divided among several decision-making bodies. With any luck, the new advisory committee will attach some smart national priorities to freight movement and set policy accordingly.

California Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal is just one of the 47 members of the U.S. DOT Freight Advisory Committee that gets high marks from transportation reformers. Photo: Everything Long Beach

If controlled by the existing modal agencies within U.S. DOT, the conversation about freight can too easily work backwards: deciding first that the solution is highways, for example, and then figuring out how to match that with the problem. Shipping freight by rail and inland waterways can often be a far more efficient and less polluting way to move goods, while taking trucks off congested roadways.

The committee will also have to avoid the pitfalls that come with the expansion of the Panama Canal and the supposed freight “tsunami” that is going to come crashing down on U.S. shores. While all of the country’s west coast ports can already handle bigger ships, many east coast ports are in panic mode, worried that they either need to spend millions on dredging or get left behind. If these decisions are left to the states, there will be a lot of unnecessary spending. But if decisions can be made with national priorities in mind, the country can decide which – if any – east coast ports need to be deepened and save the money on the rest. With any luck, the people named to the U.S. DOT freight advisory committee will be dispassionate enough to make those calls.

And there’s good reason to think they’ll make smart calls. The committee includes many advocates for multimodalism and livability. “[It’s] nice to see some solid academics and advocates in here, that states are represented by more than just DOTs, and that cities are so strongly represented,” said Deron Lovaas of NRDC. “This stacks the group strongly in favor of robust debate and balanced recommendations. I hope their deliberations capitalize on this good setup.”

Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation agreed that it is a “very impressive group,” while adding that it is “a bit heavy on existing stakeholders” — shipping companies and trade groups who represent the freight industry. He said that while “real change demands an outside, more objective presence from groups that do not stand to benefit from DOT decisions,” stakeholder buy-in is necessary to “move the ball.”

To pull out a few of the brightest stars:

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard was an unexpected favorite at this year’s National Bike Summit. A Republican, Ballard created the city’s first Office of Sustainability ever and is working to bring bike-share to the city. He’s not the only person representing cities on this panel: Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton, and Stacey Hodge from NYCDOT all bring an urban perspective. Anyone else putting together a big panel on freight might load it full of state DOT heads, but U.S. DOT only named two: Ann Schneider of Illinois DOT and Mike Tooley from Montana.

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Will the Nation’s First Strategic Freight Plan be Multi-Modal?

Congress is joining U.S. DOT in committing more resources to a national freight plan, a more strategic way of moving goods than the current haphazard and fragmented current approach. As mandated by MAP-21, U.S. DOT is working on a strategic plan for a nationwide freight network, and last month, Congress kicked off its contribution, holding an inaugural hearing of the new, specially-appointed freight panel of the House Transportation Committee. At that first hearing, panel members heard from representatives of the trucking, freight rail, and shipping industries, as well as labor.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler headed a special panel hearing on freight last month in Washington. Image: The Political Carnival

The Congressional panel on freight will be traveling the country over the next few months seeking input on the nationwide freight plan.

At the hearing, Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) emphasized the need to develop a 21st century freight transportation system in a way that doesn’t prioritize highways over other modes.

“MAP-21 authorized some incentives to encourage states to develop highway freight plans… and required the Federal Highway Administration to designate a national freight network,” Nadler said. “There remains much work to be done to expand this vision to include all modes of transportation — highway, rail, water and air — to ensure that the resources are available to implement this vision.”

In the past, Obama administration officials have asserted some modal preferences in the “goods movement hierarchy.” Deputy Secretary John Porcari said in 2010 that “we want to keep goods movement on water as long as possible, and then on rail as long as possible and truck it for the last miles.”

Each panel witness provided recommendations guided by his own industry’s self-interest, and none offered a broad, multi-modal philosophy. There did seem to be general agreement on a few matters, primarily that the federal government has a role to play in funding major freight projects.

Fred Smith, president of FedEx, contended that regulations allowing bigger trucks would improve efficiency and environmental outcomes — an argument refuted by opponents who point out that bigger, heavier trucks will require more road maintenance and pose a greater danger on the roads.

Smith, like nearly all the other panelists, argued for more revenue.

“We need a funding mechanism in the form of a revised fuel tax or vehicle mileage tax, which the user community almost universally supports to fund additional infrastructure, particularly in the more congested parts of the country,” he said.

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TIGER’s Love Affair With Freight — And Bikes

TIGER funding by mode. Image: Eno

This article is the second of a two-part series about how U.S. DOT’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program — TIGER, a discretionary grant program that got its start under the Recovery Act in 2009 — has made transportation planning more strategic, based on a benefit-cost analysis and national goals. Read the first part here, about Republicans’ empty charges of political bias. 

U.S. DOT has committed to maintaining geographic equity and a set-aside of roughly a quarter of each TIGER grant cycle to rural areas. (The Eno Center for Transportation, which just released a report on lessons learned from the TIGER experience [PDF], notes that that commitment has probably also been the key to making the program politically sustainable.) But as always, there’s a problem of definitions. What qualifies as rural? Should grantors strive to give equally to each of the four traditional regions, or should grant amounts be proportionate to population?

In the end, DOT tried to be equitable to the four regions, by population, within a range of 12 percent. But maybe it shouldn’t really matter who lives in a certain area as long as the benefits of a project are spread out? For example, freight projects like the CREATE program — a freight rail project in Chicago — benefit the whole country, not just the community they’re located in.

And freight has been a big winner with TIGER, winning nearly a third of TIGER funds throughout the four grant cycles – something U.S. DOT officials wouldn’t have guessed would happen at the outset. But freight is often a perfect candidate for discretionary federal grants. Complex, interconnected, intermodal freight projects that move commerce have “elements that really don’t fit inside the tidy boxes that state DOT are able to deal with,” said Leslie Blakey, executive director of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors. The focus on national and regional significance is one area where states fail, as they are only in tune with their own needs, not the needs of the whole country.

It’s not just TIGER: MAP-21 has gotten U.S. DOT to focus on freight in a way it never has before, and Congress is following suit, holding the first hearing yesterday of a newly-appointed special panel on freight. But TIGER led the way, bringing together various modal agencies to think strategically and holistically about the freight system. Though TIGER had limited funds to work with, the emphasis on intermodalism was a rare and necessary prerequisite for a useful conversation about freight.

Freight is also a prime example of the way TIGER funding can fill in the gaps between public and private funding. Private investment is “naturally part of the freight system,” according to Blakey, in a way that isn’t necessarily true of other areas of surface transportation. The private sector may be willing to fund the lion’s share of a freight project but doesn’t want to invest in certain elements that are purely for public benefit. That’s an ideal place for TIGER to fit in – to cover just a portion, in partnership with private investors.

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Reps. Duncan and Nadler Will Lead New T&I Panel on Freight

MAP-21 pushed U.S. DOT to get serious about freight: In recent months, the agency has announced the creation of a national freight policy, a National Freight Advisory Committee, and a Freight Policy Council, as mandated by the bill.

Will the new House panel on freight focus on rail or just highways? Photo: Emotional Intelligence

Now the House Transportation Committee is getting in on the action. The committee announced today that Rep. John Duncan (R-TN), vice-chair of the full committee, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) will lead a new “Panel on 21st Century Freight Transportation.” The panel, being multi-modal in scope, will bring together members that serve on the various modal subcommittees.

“In the past, the conversation about freight transportation and goods movement has focused only on one specific mode of transportation or another,” said Rep. Duncan in a statement.  “But freight doesn’t move just by ship, or by rail car, or by truck. Chances are the goods you buy at the store got on the shelves thanks to all those methods of transportation. Bottlenecks during any leg of that journey from the manufacturer to the market drive up costs. That’s why improving the flow of freight across all modes of transportation is so critical to a healthy economy.”

“The movement of freight is one of the most critical transportation questions for the 21st century,” added Rep. Nadler. “How we prioritize, invest, and develop freight infrastructure will have considerable bearing on how our economy grows, how we compete on the world stage, and how we create a sustainable and environmentally clean future at home.”

A focus on multi-modalism and environmental sustainability would be a welcome addition to the conversation. Though a national conversation about freight movement is long overdue, it’s gotten a bumpy start: Advocates are nervous that the new freight councils and committees could repeat the errors of the past and focus too much on highways. It didn’t help when Sec. Ray LaHood suggested building 3,000 miles of new roads as part of the freight plan.

The House panel will serve for six months, beginning with its first hearing on April 24.

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UDPATE: U.S. DOT’s First-Ever Freight Plan May Include 3,000 New Highway Miles

UPDATE 6/5/13: Four months after publishing this article we suddenly realized we may have misinterpreted LaHood’s quote. We checked with U.S. DOT and they confirmed we were right about being wrong. When he said that the department would ”chart a primary network of up to 27,000 miles of existing interstates and other roads” and “consider adding as many as 3,000 more miles in the future,” what he meant was that the law had given the department the mandate to create a 27,000-mile freight network with the option of adding another 3,000 miles — of existing highways — to the network later.  

It’s hard to believe, but, despite the fact that freight makes up 25 percent of all transportation emissions, the nation has never had a strategic plan for how to move goods.

Will the trucking industry dominate the nation's first ever national freight planning process? Image: U.S. DOT

Under the MAP-21 transportation bill, however, those days are history. Outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced on his blog yesterday that U.S. DOT will establish a national freight policy and a National Freight Advisory Committee.

As part of the plan, unfortunately, LaHood floated the idea of adding thousands of miles of highways to the interstate system.

He detailed the woes of truck drivers who struggle with congestion, and instead of recommending a switch to a more multi-modal system, said U.S. DOT would look to road-building as the answer.

“So we’ll chart a primary network of up to 27,000 miles of existing interstates and other roads,” LaHood wrote. “And we’ll consider adding as many as 3,000 more miles in the future if that’s what it takes to help our truckers deliver the goods.”

LaHood was careful to explain that planning would also include freight that moves over rail and waterways.

The fact that 3,000 new miles of interstate are now on the table makes it more important than ever It is important that the new National Freight Advisory Committee represent multi-modal interests, not just trucking. U.S. DOT is seeking nominations for the committee now.

LaHood hinted that that was the intention: “By engaging stakeholders representing diverse interests — from safety and the environment to labor and industry — the Advisory Committee will provide recommendations on how DOT can improve its freight transportation policies and programs,” he wrote.

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UPDATE: Here’s Your Chance to Influence MAP-21’s Implementation

UPDATE 9/18 with comments from DOT officials.

In July, Congress handed U.S. DOT a transportation bill with a lot of holes in it, especially relating to performance measures. We’ve reported on some of the more significant holes, and suggested some ideas on how to fill them. But there’s much more to say – and U.S. DOT has opened a web-based dialogue to solicit opinions on how they should design performance measures for the new bill. There is also a page devoted to soliciting stakeholder input on how to design the new national freight policy.

Participants on U.S. DOT's public comment page have asked for better data collection on bicycle crashes. Photo: Canton, SD Police Department

Transportation bills haven’t historically been opened up to this sort of process, but with more sophisticated web tools now than in 2005, the last time a bill was passed, DOT officials say we’ll be seeing a lot more of it. I had wondered if they focused in on these two issues because there was internal dissent at DOT and they were looking for a tie-breaker, but officials frame it a different way — just an attempt to see if there is an “emerging consensus” that they should be tuning in to.

It’s especially important, as one official told me, because so many people felt left out of the legislative process around MAP-21. “We are trying to make sure we don’t repeat the mistake in implementation.”

They say the freight policy, especially, has generated a lot of interest, and they want to make sure their outreach captures all the good ideas out there. The call for comments on freight policy separates out different issue categories, each with a set of questions, but the page on performance measures is far more open to interpretation.

This is an opportunity not to be missed. We’re all stakeholders in the U.S. transportation system, and this is a way we can all have U.S. DOT’s ear — not just those who hire expensive lobbyists.

So far, there are 29 ideas on the performance measures page, and some of them are very thoughtful.

Alexandra Tyson suggested prioritizing state of good repair, essentially leading states to maintain existing capacity rather than constantly seeking to build more. Bill Barlow wants transit systems with good safety records to get some kind of bonus. “In the highway world,” he said, “projects get extra credits for high volumes of serious crashes.” Clearly there needs to be a better way.

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Will DOT’s New Freight Council Focus on More Than Trucks?

On Thursday, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood announced the creation of a new Freight Policy Council, which is charged with coming up with a freight strategic plan. This is a first step toward a sorely lacking national plan around freight.

DOT Chief Ray LaHood announced the freight policy council's creation last week in Washington state. Photo courtesy of the secretary's FastLane blog

The movement of goods accounts for about a quarter of all transportation-related emissions. Every American is responsible for 40 tons of freight a year, according to DOT. Everyone agrees that freight is essential for the economic well-being of the country, and much more so given President Obama’s stated goal of doubling exports by 2015. “A more efficient freight network will reduce traffic congestion, environmental impact and shipping costs, which will lead to lower prices for consumers,” according to a press release by U.S. DOT. But up until now, there’s been no coherent policy around freight, or any governmental body tasked exclusively with looking at it.

A bill to create a national freight strategic plan and a permanent freight planning office at DOT was introduced two years ago but was always intended to be rolled into a reauthorization, not passed as a stand-alone bill. MAP-21 captured most of the elements of that plan, and advocates are glad to see it moving forward.

“Creation of a high-level, multimodal Freight Policy Council will go far in ensuring MAP-21’s freight provisions increase efficiency across all modes of the national freight network,” said Mortimer Downey, chair of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors, in a statement. “Establishment of this Council signals a praiseworthy commitment to our national economy and global economic competitiveness.”

The operative word there is “multimodal.” For sustainable transportation advocates, that’s the key to whether this council – and the plan it comes up with – is transformative or disappointing. “Are they going to build a lot of truck-only lanes or are they going to look toward a smarter future where we’re moving as much as possible off the roads?” asks Ann Mesnikoff, director of the Sierra Club’s Green Transportation Campaign. “It is certainly time that we take a very close look at how we are moving freight and ensure that we do as much as possible to slash oil consumption, carbon pollution and the dangerous air pollution associated with freight.”

U.S. DOT didn’t need legislation to move forward on creating a national freight plan. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) urged LaHood to do so months ago, using his existing authority. But MAP-21, signed into law July 6, gave the agency the kick in the pants to get it done.

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Highway Builders to Party Leaders: The Future Is “More Than Just Roadways”

Over the past two weeks, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association has sent letters to the Republican National Committee [PDF] and the Democratic National Committee [PDF], asking them to consider inserting a plank in their platforms about transportation. And they were clear in their letter that, despite being major cheerleaders for road-building, the future they see is multi-modal.

ARTBA reminds Republicans that the Transcontinental Railroad was their idea -- and a good one, at that. Image: Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco

They also made a strong argument for transportation as a federal responsibility. To many, this is a no-brainer. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) likes to remind people of the example of the Kansas Turnpike, built in 1954, when transportation was left to the states. Oklahoma ran out of funding for the project — “So for the next 18 months, the turnpike ended in Amos Switzer’s field at the Kansas/Oklahoma border,” DeFazio said. “For months on end, Amos was left to fish drivers out of his field until the start of the interstate system that finished this badly needed roadway.”

Conservatives in Congress have been arguing the unthinkable: taking the country back to a state-based system where there’s no federal role in transportation. “We settled that debate with Dwight David Eisenhower,” DeFazio said.

ARTBA wants to settle this argument once and for all with a little founding-father-speak — always popular with the right. Here they bring out the big guns — George Washington himself — who in 1785 said, “The credit, the saving, and convenience of this country all require that our great roads [and by this I'm sure he also meant light rail, bullet trains, and the national bike network] leading fromone public place to another should be straightened and established by law… To me these things seem indispensably necessary.” Not to mention that the federal responsibility for “post roads” is written into the constitution.

Writing to the Democrats, ARTBA celebrates Thomas Jefferson, who authorized funding for the National Road from Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois; Woodrow Wilson, who signed the Federal-Aid Roads Act; Franklin D. Roosevelt, from whom infrastructure building was a key strategy out of the Great Depression; and other Democrats right up to 2008. Take note, straphangers and complete streets advocates: Tailoring your message to butter up your audience is a lobbying strategy well worth stealing from these guys.

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