Op-Ed: The Right Approach to Funding Freight Transportation

By Judge Ed Emmett

For over two decades, I have used a simple analogy to explain the importance of a modern, efficient freight transportation system. My doctor has always stressed that my overall health is tied directly to the efficient flow of blood through my veins and arteries. A human’s circulatory system is the key to good health. Likewise, the health of our nation’s economy is tied to the efficient flow of goods through its freight transportation system. Without a well-designed and maintained freight transportation system, the United States’ economy will become sluggish and unable to compete.

The general public understands the need to maintain mobility, but they do not necessarily grasp the importance of moving freight. The Interstate Highway system is accepted as a boon for travelers. But, what is not as well-known are the huge benefits to our nation’s businesses through lower logistics costs and a much more efficient supply chain. Now that the Interstate system is aging, those benefits are at risk if we fail to maintain and update the highway system.

It is also important to recognize that intermodal freight traffic has greatly increased, largely as a result of containerization and globalization. Therefore, moving freight involves more than just highways. Railroads, waterways, ports, and intermodal facilities must all receive attention and appropriate funding for freight transportation to meet the needs of the U. S. economy.

In almost every speech I give, I emphasize the need for an efficient freight transportation system. Never does anyone disagree. Yet, progress on this issue has been difficult. Why? The answer is simple, politics. Increased taxes or fees are currently unacceptable and the competition for limited dollars is fierce.

The Eno Center for Transportation has stepped up with a workable approach to assuring an efficient freight transportation system. In the short term, supporting Congressional efforts to appropriate general funds for freight transportation will allow major projects to get underway and provide much needed relief in critical areas where freight mobility is hindered.

The long term solution must involve the direct beneficiaries of an improved multi-modal freight transportation system. The most direct approach will be a fee charged for freight shipments. However, such a fee will not be easy to design and administer.

The freight transportation community has changed dramatically and is continuing to change. The roles of shippers, carriers, and intermediaries constantly shift, so crafting a fee that is applied fairly and equitably will be tricky.

The freight transportation industry has become much more efficient as it has been deregulated. Any mechanism for collecting a new fee that hints at regulation will be strongly opposed.

Any fee that creates an administrative burden will also meet stiff resistance.

Finally, it is never easy to convince anyone or any company to support a fee that increases the cost of doing business. Making it clear that the funds generated will be dedicated to freight transportation is critical to winning support. Such a fee would be a user fee directly related to freight transportation and the cost of moving goods within a well maintained, efficient transportation system.

The Eno Center proposal recognizes all of these obstacles and is a well-reasoned starting block. All of us who care about freight transportation should get behind the proposal and make its vision a reality.

Ed Emmett is the County Judge in Harris County, Texas. He is a former Commissioner at the Interstate Commerce Commission and president of the National Industrial Transportation League.


Search Eno Transportation Weekly

Latest Issues

Happening on the Hill