DOC Listening Sessions

The US Departments of Commerce (DOC) and Transportation have recently broken new ground. They are cooperating on a series of public meetings in which members of the private sector have been asked to come and discuss their concerns and ideas about transportation. This is new ground because the agencies are dealing with a fundamental issue that is all too often lost in discussions of transportation: that it is critical for the economic well-being of the United States.
On February 7-9 in Kansas City, Missouri, the Federal Highway Administration sponsored a regional peer exchange on freight. Most of the meeting was a fairly standard peer exchange, with state, MPO, and federal folks sharing information and ideas. The last half-day of the event was different. Representatives of two railroads, a sporting goods company, an engineering consultant, and an academic formed a panel to share their ideas and concerns about transportation. Some of the ideas offered:

  • Encourage public-private partnerships. The rail companies, in particular, saw a need for greater cooperation between the public sector and rail interests. They urged that an effort be made to sort out the benefits that accrue to the private sector and the public and allocate costs of some projects in that manner. They pointed to the Crescent Coalition and the Gateway Corridor, two successful public agency-rail company partnerships, as examples of the benefits that can be found in such arrangements.
  • Pass an investment tax credit that would encourage rail companies to invest in system capacity. They pointed to the tax provisions that had been enjoyed by class II and III railroads as an example of how tax policy could be used to promote desired outcomes.
  • Come up with the big idea or the vision for transportation. This idea was intended as a way of interesting the public and elected officials in transportation. Unfortunately, the panel was short on specifics as to what that idea might be.
  • Reduce the regulatory hurdles for doing construction projects. The rail company and engineering representatives all pointed to stories of how long it took to complete their projects and how long it took for public agencies to do projects and suggested that something had to be done to speed things up. Again, they were a little short on specifics.
  • Reduce the regulatory burdens on truckers. Examples were offered of how the industry could significantly improve productivity if they could use vehicles of slightly—or significantly—different configurations.
  • Spend more money. All looked at the stagnant revenue streams for transportation and agreed that something had to be done. Again, the specifics were lacking.

In total, the session was informative. It illustrated the frustrations that the private sector has about how government does its job. It also illustrated the lack of understanding in the private sector over the constraints within which public agencies operate. It was a good effort, even though it’s currently unclear what the next steps are. The Departments of Commerce and Transportation should be applauded for moving into this new and important area.