Obama proposal points to green recovery

Our old, interstate–highway–based transport system is broke (financially) and broken (physically). Even as public investment has faltered, federal policies have discouraged the private investment neces­sary to implement new technologies and integrate rail, road, and water–based modes of transport into an efficient intermodal system. Traffic congestion slows economic growth, while outmoded diesel en­gines pollute the air, feed global climate change, and bind us to imported, ever more costly petroleum.

America should seize this moment to put freight transportation onto the high road, where firms com­pete based on efficiency and quality of service, not by dumping costs onto the backs of the public and truck drivers. A new transportation policy for the 21 century would reverse the deregula­tory drift of the past 30 years by enhancing the authority of federal agencies so that targeted pub­lic investment in infrastructure, improved transport technologies, and renewable energy encourage complementary private investment. This is the formula– robust regulation and public/private invest­ment– that has worked to make northern Europe’s freight transport system the world’s best. A similar strat­egy could put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work and enhance economic growth by raising the efficiency of the transport system on which American businesses depend. By jump–starting new industries such as clean and renewable energy, high–speed rail, electric locomotives, and clean trucks, such high–high–road policies can stimulate creation of good, green jobs and economic growth over the long term.

In 2009, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee proposed comprehensive legislation to reshape America’s freight transport system. At the Obama administration’s request, however, that legislation was put on the back–burner, awaiting an economic recovery and renewed federal revenues. This is a missed opportunity.

Congress should return to the task with these five key principles as guideposts:

1. Give the U.S. Department of Transportation the power to coordinate and regulate a national, multi–modal transportation system.

2. Make transport companies pay user fees that defray the full public cost of greenhouse gas­es, diesel particulates, highway accidents, and congestion.  Hidden subsidies–such as fuel taxes that don’t track inflation, or the grandfathering of legacy diesel trucks—distort markets and make it hard to determine what investments are optimal.

3. Push the trucking industry off the low road through enhanced regulation, including rules requiring that old engines be retrofitted or replaced, higher training standards for drivers, a crackdown on the misclassification of many truck drivers as independent contractors, when they are really dependent employees, more rigorous and frequent highway safety inspections, and a system of on-board recorders to monitor hours of service regulations.

4. Use federal transportation funds and a national infrastructure bank to leverage the expansion of the rail–freight network, which is currently congested and filled with bottlenecks.

5. Provide federal funding for research and startup of new transport technologies and  clean fuel sources.  An independently man­aged National Energy Innovation Fund should be funded to use federal dollars to spur clean energy development via demonstration financing, loan guarantees, partnerships with state or local governments, or private firms.

If Congress reshapes transportation policy with robust regulation to attract private investment in new technologies, we can boost economic efficiency, improve public health, slow global warming, and create hundreds of thousands of good jobs. A bold transportation policy can drive development of alternative energy technologies and stimulate investment in new freight vehicle manufacturing industries.  Down that path lies economic recovery and a greener future.

David Bensman is a professor in the department of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University.