Senators Examine Intermodal Cargo Network Status

Senators Examine Intermodal Cargo Network Status

May 13, 2021  | Jonathan Hammond

It seems a bit shocking that only a couple of months ago, intermodal cargo containers, the ships that carry them, and the im-port-ant waterways they travel were making front page headlines thanks to the EVER GIVEN fiasco in the Suez Canal. With that in mind, the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, Maritime, Freight, and Ports held a hearing on May 11 to discuss the state of competitiveness and federal investment in multimodal freight throughout the United States.   

Considering the massive impact of freight on the U.S. economy – deep draft ports alone account for $5.4 trillion a year (26 percent) of U.S. GDP – Senators and witnesses seemed eager to discuss ways that the country could maintain its efficiency and competitive edge in the global economy. 

Witnesses included (click their name for their written testimony):  

  • Chuck Baker, President, American Short Line & Regional Railroad Association 
  • Lamont Byrd, Director, Safety and Health Department, International Brotherhood of Teamsters 
  • Chris Connor, President & CEO, American Association of Port Authorities 
  • Chris Spear, President & CEO, American Trucking Associations 

Subcommittee chairman Gary Peters (D-MI) wasted no time mentioning the importance of efficient freight networks and the workers who make them possible. He noted that problems in the freight industry have ripples throughout the rest of economy, whether that be higher prices for small businesses or delays in goods and services for U.S. citizens. Ranking member Deb Fischer (R-NE) also thanked the workers of the freight industry for their work and sacrifice and called for serious investment in “core” infrastructure such as waterways, ports, roads, bridges, airports, and broadband. 

The State of Freight:  

Witnesses hailed from every major mode of freight transportation. Chuck Baker (Short Line Railroads) mentioned that short line railroads are important because they are flexible, friendly, and connect urban and rural areas to national networks. However, short line and regional freight railroads often invest a much higher percentage of their revenues into their own infrastructure than do the larger Class 1 railroads, and are facing funding issues.  

Chris Connor (AAPA) also highlighted the importance of ports and port facilities across the United States. For instance, 31 million Americans are employed by jobs generated by port facilities. However, ports in the United States are facing major issues regarding funding, congestion, and infrastructure modernization. Connor called for greater funding for marine highways throughout the U.S. He stated his pleasure in seeing that both the Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan and the Republican’s Road Map include additional spending for marine highways across the nation. 

Chris Spear (ATA) also attended the hearing and was quick to emphasize the importance of trucking in American freight. 71 percent of the nation’s freight tonnage is transported by trucks, and truck companies provide at least half of the funding for the Highway Trust Fund. Additionally, Spear pointed out that 80 percent of U.S. communities rely exclusively on trucks for freight transportation needs, and that trucks move more than $10.4 trillion worth of goods annually. Spear also made it clear that there is “no argument between any of us that our dependency on one another is what allows our supply chain to withstand the pressure of a global pandemic.”  

Labor was also represented by Lamont Byrd (Teamsters). Byrd reiterated that the Teamsters represent 600,000 truck drivers and over 70,000 rail employees who are experiencing dramatically rising work demands as a result of the pandemic. Online shopping has placed more pressure on truck drivers and railroaders, and structural changes have only added to worker’s problems. Byrd expressed concern over the redefinition of rest-breaks and the permitting of CMB drivers to “pause” work for up to three hours during the day, emphasizing that none of these regulations improve worker safety. Byrd also noted his concerns over the rise of autonomous vehicles and asked that proper protections be put in place. Although they may improve safety, Byrd mentioned autonomous vehicles have the potential to reshape the entire transportation sector while still degrading or even replacing the positions of workers.  

On Workforce Development 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) asked Byrd how Congress could assist in preventing truck driver fatigue, a major cause of fatal crashes. Byrd stated that revisiting hours of service regulations would help, as some drivers are working in excess of 60 hours a week, 14 hours a day. When asked by Blumenthal on whether he agreed with Byrd’s claim, Spear agreed that driver fatigue was a problem. Spear was also quick to mention that two-thirds of all fatalities are caused by passenger vehicles, often by drivers distracted by texting or traveling over the speed limit.  

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) inquired about the composition of the freight industry’s workforce, noting that women make up less than 10 percent of drivers. In addition to mentioning the bipartisan Promoting Women in Trucking Workforce Act that she has co-sponsored with Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), she asked Spear about whether the ATA supported the legislation, and how they planned on addressing the disparity in the workforce. Spear stated that the ATA not only supports the bill, but that it has set up internal diversity workforces that define policies and create platforms to make the industry more attractive.  

Demographics continued to play a role during the hearing. Referencing the recently introduced DRIVE-Safe Act  Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) asked Spears whether the legislation made sense to address driver shortages. Spear claimed that the legislation was a significant step in the right direction as it would increase worker safety. He noted that 49 states, including the District of Columbia, currently allow 18-year-olds to drive Class-8 vehicles. The DRIVE-Safe Act would allow 18–21-year-olds to drive goods across state lines and is opposed by Byrd on safety grounds 

Afterward, Peters took back the floor for questioning, this time asking Byrd about the implementation of autonomous vehicles. Peters was specifically interested in how “these advances have real benefits for workers and for the American middle class.” Byrd made sure to state his support for innovation, but also noted that the workforce must be trained so that it can adequately operate and provide maintenance or other support functions for automated vehicles.  

On Efficiency Concerns: 

Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), citing an industry report on the Top 100 freight bottle necks in the U.S., asked Spear exactly what the cost of these idling vehicles were for the trucking industry. According to Spear, bottlenecks routinely sideline 425,000 drivers and cost the freight industry $75 billion a year. Additionally, idling vehicles emit 67.3 million metric tons of CO2. Spear stated that legislation addressing those bottlenecks would earn the support of the ATA.  

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) focused on the intermodal aspects of freight transportation. In a line of questioning directed at Baker, Baker revealed that freight is very much an integrated network. Although freight and trucking compete, they are also partners. Additionally, Connor stated that he strongly advocates for the creation of an “Office of Multimodal Freight Transportation” in USDOT that can leverage all modes.  Warnock’s questions made it clear that modes cannot act in silos.  

Sen. John Thune (R-SD) was curious on how ports were navigating the ongoing container shortage, specifically for industries like agriculture that require timeliness in order to export their products. Connor revealed that according to a World Bank report, American ports routinely fail to make the grade on efficiency. The top ranked U.S. port sat at 53 out of 351 global ports. Additionally, Baker noted that China outspends the US two-to-one on all waterborne transportation, and Connor added that lack of investment is a major concern for the AAPA. 

On Freight Infrastructure 

Shifting his questioning to railroad crossings, Peters asked Baker how short line railroads plan to address railroad crossing blockages that hurt economies and communities. Baker responded that he is supportive of full committee chair Sen. Cantwell’s (D-NV) and Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-MO) Railroad Crossing Elimination Act, which would provide $500 million a year to reduce at-grade rail crossings.  

Baldwin shifted her attention to the Maritime Administration’s Port Infrastructure Development Program (PIDP) and questioned Connor on how the industry is shoring up the resiliency of ports in the Great Lakes. Connor noted that the PIDP is vastly oversubscribed. The grant program is allotted around $250 million a year, but often sees requests of up to $1 billion.  

Peters finished by asking about installing a larger lock in the Soo Locks system, located in his home state of Michigan, to allow larger ships to navigate the route. Connor stated that money could be added in upcoming surface transportation to help the route, but spending should be in place to prepare not just the next generation, but the next two generations as well.  

Moving Forward 

Throughout the hearing, witnesses made clear that all their sectors require attention and investment. Baker stated that the funding authorizations for the CRISI and INFRA grant programs should be increased to prevent any serious “squeezing out” of major projects. Additionally, Baker asked that the $500 million aggregate cap on multimodal transportation projects within the INFRA program be lifted to accommodate further investments. Byrd also asked for some regulations, such as redefinition of rest breaks or younger driver pilot programs, be repealed for worker safety 

Connor also outlined spending requests from the AAPA, specifically: 

  • $20 billion for deep draft port infrastructure and intermodal freight movement connectors, robust funding for electrification of dockside ship connections, and zero/near zero port equipment 
  • $6 billion for the U.S. Army Coastal Navigation Program 
  • $500 million for port development of offshore wind energy  

Connor also noted that current cost-sharing infrastructure measures with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) were strangling infrastructure development. He mentioned that ports are afraid to challenge CBP officers lest they start delaying inspections. Connor suggested creating a separate funding mechanism for CPB so they can create the infrastructure they need to do their job. Finally, Spear called for stronger relationships between federal and private partners, particularly law enforcement. Spear also requested that officials “stop blaming each other for the things you don’t do, and start taking credit for the things you should do.”  

Only time will tell whether freight operations will receive any additional funding and support in the upcoming Congressional negotiations over infrastructure spending.  

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