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Will DOT’s New Freight Council Focus on More Than Trucks?

On Thursday, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood announced the creation of a new Freight Policy Council, which is charged with coming up with a freight strategic plan. This is a first step toward a sorely lacking national plan around freight.

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The movement of goods accounts for about a quarter of all transportation-related emissions. Every American is responsible for 40 tons of freight a year, according to DOT. Everyone agrees that freight is essential for the economic well-being of the country, and much more so given President Obama’s stated goal of doubling exports by 2015. “A more efficient freight network will reduce traffic congestion, environmental impact and shipping costs, which will lead to lower prices for consumers,” according to a press release by U.S. DOT. But up until now, there’s been no coherent policy around freight, or any governmental body tasked exclusively with looking at it.

A bill to create a national freight strategic plan and a permanent freight planning office at DOT was introduced two years ago but was always intended to be rolled into a reauthorization, not passed as a stand-alone bill. MAP-21 captured most of the elements of that plan, and advocates are glad to see it moving forward.

“Creation of a high-level, multimodal Freight Policy Council will go far in ensuring MAP-21’s freight provisions increase efficiency across all modes of the national freight network,” said Mortimer Downey, chair of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors, in a statement. “Establishment of this Council signals a praiseworthy commitment to our national economy and global economic competitiveness.”

The operative word there is “multimodal.” For sustainable transportation advocates, that’s the key to whether this council – and the plan it comes up with – is transformative or disappointing. “Are they going to build a lot of truck-only lanes or are they going to look toward a smarter future where we’re moving as much as possible off the roads?” asks Ann Mesnikoff, director of the Sierra Club's Green Transportation Campaign. “It is certainly time that we take a very close look at how we are moving freight and ensure that we do as much as possible to slash oil consumption, carbon pollution and the dangerous air pollution associated with freight.”

U.S. DOT didn’t need legislation to move forward on creating a national freight plan. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) urged LaHood to do so months ago, using his existing authority. But MAP-21, signed into law July 6, gave the agency the kick in the pants to get it done.

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