Sen. Cantwell: Improve U.S. Freight System Today for Future Growth

America needs to make the right investments today to stay ahead in a competitive global economy that values efficiency and cost-effectiveness

cantwell headshotBy Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.)

Across our nation, trade is an economic engine for American prosperity and growth. It’s a story we know well in Washington state, where 40 percent of jobs are tied to trade.

Nationwide, more than 38 million people work in trade-dependent jobs: from farms and ports to shipping hubs and manufacturers. And what is the one thing those jobs all have in common? They depend on efficient transportation infrastructure to move goods to customers.

Unfortunately, bottlenecks and other congestion in our freight infrastructure cost our economy $200 billion annually. This means delayed consumer deliveries, increased business costs, spoiled produce and uncertainty for ports, shipping companies and customers.

In short, predictability and speed matter.

America needs to make the right freight investments today to stay ahead in an increasingly competitive global economy that values efficiency and cost-effectiveness. With freight projected to grow by 30 percent over the next 20 years, improving our freight systems and their connections could mean thousands of jobs and economic activity stretching from coast to coast. But America will only see the benefits if we prepare now, working together at all levels of government with the private sector.

That’s why I was glad to join U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last August to announce the creation of a national Freight Policy Council at the USDOT. This council is bringing together all the modes as a collaborative voice for strategic national freight planning, prioritization and investment.

A multimodal approach to improving freight mobility is exactly what our complex system of interconnected seaports, waterways, roads, airports and rails demands. Cargo often travels across modes: South Dakota wheat is trucked on rural freight corridors to terminals, railed to Columbia River ports and exported on ships to growing Asian markets. And countless containers arriving on the East and West coasts travel hundreds of miles into the American interior by truck and rail.

Over the next year, the Freight Policy Council will be reaching out to key freight transportation players – state and local governments, industry, businesses, workers, safety advocates and others – to develop a comprehensive national freight strategic plan that will help identify and guide freight investments to improve speed, efficiency and safety.

I know this is the right approach – because I’ve seen its success in my home state of Washington. The USDOT’s new approach follows the multimodal and collaborative model of the Washington State Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board (FMSIB), which has brought all parties to the table for freight planning and investment decisions over the last decade.

FMSIB has helped support the Port of Vancouver’s West Vancouver Freight Access Project, which will triple the port’s rail capacity and create up to 2,000 jobs with its completion in 2017. It’s a smart investment for Southwest Washington, helping to attract nearly $400 million in private-sector investment.

And the benefits of the West Vancouver Freight Access Project wouldn’t have been fully realized without completing another critical freight project – deepening the Columbia River Channel. This effort involved a broad coalition of public and private supporters working with the federal government to improve one of the nation’s top agricultural export gateways. Up and down the Columbia River, the channel deepening has resulted in over $930 million in new investments – including at the Port of Vancouver – to handle increased cargo.

The Freight Policy Council will help America plan for and prioritize these types of job-creating investments that boost our trade economy. It will do so by taking a comprehensive, system-wide look at the freight network. While the Council is a step in the right direction for U.S. freight policy, there is more to be done to ensure we reach our destination. I will be working with other freight-minded legislators to build on these efforts over the coming years through legislation and as discussions begin on the next surface transportation bill.

The cost of inaction is too high – $200 billion lost each year to freight network congestion and other inefficiencies. Today, we have a national opportunity to work together and build an even more efficient freight network that supports private-sector job creation in communities across our nation.

Let’s not pass it up.

Sen. Cantwell, a Democrat, has served in the U.S. Senate since 2001 and has been a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation since 2003. Recognizing the importance of ports to international trade and job creation, Cantwell first called for a national freight mobility plan in early 2010, to support President Obama’s goal to double exports in five years. Cantwell has led efforts in the Senate to model a national plan off Washington state’s work on freight mobility planning and investment, successfully working with U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to create the nation’s first Freight Policy Council to improve the condition and performance of the national freight network to maintain U.S. competitiveness. Follow Sen. Cantwell’s work at:

Read this article now in AAPA Seaports Magazine’s new interactive digital edition.