We know that federal advisory committees are nothing new to Washington, but two focused on freight is unusual. Both have the ear of Congress and the Obama administration. The big question is whether or not they will listen.
In the spirit of full disclosure, it is important to note that I’m appointed to the Department of Commerce’s Advisory Committee on Supply Chain Competitiveness (ACSCC) and will gladly accept congratulatory praise or tactful criticism for the revelations revealed herein. A separate group known as the National Freight Advisory Committee sponsored by the Department of Transportation has just started.
The ACSCC began almost two years ago and has 40 members coming from various supply chain stakeholders. These are among the best and the brightest of cargo shippers and intermediaries. Companies including Campbell Soup, Halliburton, Boeing, Pfizer, Menlo and others are represented. These smart minds in cargo transportation come together to identify obstacles that are slowing cargo down and making the U.S. less competitive as a global trader.
The committees are an outgrowth of the Obama administration’s initiative to double U.S. exports in a five-year period that began in 2010. Known as the National Export Initiative, the program has set out to overcome hurtles to entering new markets by removing barriers that hinder exports. According to the administration so far, the program is on track with U.S. exports hitting an all-time record of $2.2 trillion in 2012, despite weakened European markets affecting demand for U.S. goods.
The ACSCC separates its participants into groups tackling issues related to freight policy, trade and competitiveness, information technology, finance, infrastructure and regulations. Recommendations are due to be released in the fall and will cover many specific areas of concern.
Issues from a freight forwarding perspective include the need for faster customs clearance at U.S. borders, improved road infrastructure to support airport cargo access and continued commitment and investment in NextGen, the government’s ongoing transformation of the airspace navigation system. Other areas of concern are the effects of newly implemented truck driver hours of service rules and harmonizing air cargo security regulations with other countries.
Forwarders are optimistic that the Obama administration and Congress will heed the advisory committee’s recommendations once they are released. But just in case, the Airforwarders Association took these concerns to Capitol Hill recently to make sure Congress listens.
During recent testimony before a special panel convened by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Airforwarders Association chairman Richard Fisher stressed the importance of limiting the constantly growing regulatory burden affecting forwarders. In addition to concern about high fuel costs, truck driver shortages and the need for a more rapid shift to electronic shipping document usage, Fisher urged lawmakers to keep U.S. transportation infrastructure strong as ways to meet the nation’s ambitious export targets.
Taking our concerns to Capitol Hill might seem like overkill, but the need for communication with Congress or through active participation on government agency committees never ceases. While some of the committee’s working recommendations will only require executive branch authority for completion, others will need congressional approval. Accepting the invitation to testify not only was a privilege but prudent as well.
Recruiting highly qualified and experienced transportation professionals to participate within these groups is a smart idea on the part of our federal government. After all, who would know the best way to identify freight transportation obstacles besides those immersed in the system each day? While each member remains hopeful for a positive outcome where agencies, Congress and the president listen and act on committee recommendations, all know the reality of what to expect.
Successful exporting countries tend to have efficient road, rail, airport and regulatory infrastructures. Our nation must develop a long absent freight strategy focused on a cohesive plan unifying states working together in developing these vital areas. Inconsistent state truckload weight limits, varying railroad regulations and insufficient state road infrastructure investment levels only create an irrational freight transportation policy that hinders freight shipping.
Uniting federal and state freight transportation policy is only part of the solution. We need to address how to pay for these requirements through many mechanisms including a gas tax increase, vehicle miles traveled tax or more transfers from the general fund. Before embracing a higher tax that inevitably will result in increased consumer costs for just about everything they buy, there must be assurance that existing taxes are being invested as intended and not diverted for other purposes. Our government needs to listen to this message loud and clear.
Brandon Fried is the executive director of the U.S. Airforwarders Association.