“Millions for defense, but not one penny for tribut(aries) …”

On May 4, 2006, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta addressed the Southern California Association of Governments in Long Beach, CA. He began by discussing the economy and the high gasoline prices, then stated that, “There is another major challenge that we are focusing on at the Department of Transportation, and that is congestion. We know that gains in fuel economy evaporate quickly when traffic can only inch along overcrowded highways …

“In 2003, drivers in the Los Angeles area alone burned an extra 407 million gallons of gas while spending more than 623 million hours stuck in traffic. The total cost of this delay: $ 10.7 billion.

“Sadly, gridlock has become a daily fact of life, not just here in California, but across America. And this troubling phenomenon is not limited to roads and highways. The pattern is being repeated in crowded airports and congested skyways, and at every turn along our intermodal freight network.

“To be sure, these strains are the product of a vibrant economy. But they also represent an underlying threat to that economy … I remain concerned that congestion clouds America’s long-term economic forecast. So I have asked our top thinkers across the Department to come up with a comprehensive action plan for reducing major congestion chokepoints across the United States.”

Less than two weeks later, Secretary Mineta, true to his word, produced that comprehensive action plan. On the 16th, Secretary Mineta introduced the plan at the National Retail Federation’s annual conference in Washington. American Shipper, the International Logistics Journal, quoted Mr. Mineta as saying that “he has instructed agencies within the department to make congestion mitigation a top priority”, and that the industry “is slowly being strangled by transportation congestion” that is wiping out advances in supply chain efficiency.

“‘Without shipping, trucking and air freight, America’s retailers would have nothing to offer consumers but blank catalogs, empty Web sites and bare showrooms,’ he said.

“The strategy incorporates elements of the national freight policy the department has been developing during the past year. Key efforts to relieve freight bottlenecks include:
• Designating three to five interstate trade and travel corridors where targeted expansion projects will have the greatest impact on reducing congestion.
• Expanding the department’s liaison office in Southern California to work with state, local and industry officials on plans to achieve consensus on how to reduce delays for imports moving through the port, rail and highway systems to the rest of the country.
• Convene the first meeting of a new Surface Transportation Policy and Review Commission on May 24 to study ways to fund and reduce the cost of highway and transit projects. The commission will schedule at least four public hearings around the country.
• Convene a joint border transportation task force with the Department of Homeland Security to accelerate investments to relieve bottlenecks at the nation’s borders, where car and truck backups can sometimes last several hours during peak hours at busy ports of entry.
• Engaging shippers from the retail, manufacturing, agricultural and technology sectors, as well as freight carriers and logistics firms, through a series of ‘CEO Summits’ to discuss freight policy solutions.
• Continue efforts to modernize the air traffic control system and accelerate airport expansion programs through better use of the Airport and Airway Trust Fund.

“Under the plan, the DOT will also encourage cities to adopt high-tech highway toll systems that vary pricing based on demand in an effort to use market-based principles to get people to drive during non-peak hours and maximize existing road capacity. Mineta said the department will also speed up the review process for highway projects under way, and press states to consider legislation allowing private sector investors to design, build and operate transportation infrastructure such as toll roads, bridges, tunnels and airports.

“DOT officials have previously said that the federal government can no longer act as a funding spigot for infrastructure projects, and that the private sector and transportation consumers will have to pay more to fund projects. The government’s role will be to stimulate investment and to help localities and states coordinate projects in a way that benefits national freight and travel flows …

“‘Congestion is not a scientific mystery, nor is it an uncontrollable force. Congestion results from poor policy choices and a failure to separate solutions that are effective from those that are not. We need a new approach, and we need it now,’ Mineta said.”

Let’s review some of what we just covered. Although the American Shipper on the 16th has Secretary Mineta granting “top priority” to supply chain congestion when he said :
• that “he has instructed agencies within the department to make congestion mitigation a top priority,”…
• and that “without shipping, trucking and air freight, America’s retailers would have nothing to offer consumers but blank catalogs, empty Web sites and bare showrooms,”…
… nevertheless, “DOT officials have previously said that ‘the federal government can no longer act as a funding spigot for infrastructure projects’”.

So, is that how the federal government deals with “top priority” matters? Not at all. “Top priority” is when, on the very next day, the 17th, a story by Robert Burns of Guardian Unlimited reported that “Rumsfeld Seeks Extra Funds for War Bills”. Donald H. Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, the article stated, called upon Congress to grant $ 65 billion to cover costs in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’ll get it, too. In the minds of some, destruction takes precedence over construction, and U.S. taxpayers, consumers and even Secretary Mineta and the Department of Transportation will just have to live with it.

Maybe. A few weeks ago, in Asia Times Online Ltd., Ian Williams, speaking as an outsider, posted his views on our treatment of DP World’s attempt to acquire P&O; Port’s North American assets. He advised our legislators that “more should be done on port security. And the solution is simple. Stop pouring hundreds of billions into occupying Iraq and fomenting terrorism, and spend a fraction of it on port security”. [That’s what he said, and he’s right. And we should spend the other fraction on our congested transportation system. The “funding spigot” needs some new direction.]