Cantwell Freight Provisions Pass U.S. Senate in Sorely-Needed Surface Transportation Legislation

Senate transportation bill also incorporates Cantwell crude-by-rail safety measures, continues federal support for ferries and transit

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the U.S. Senate passed a long-term transportation bill, the DRIVE Act, which includes multiple freight and rail safety provisions championed by U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA). And for the first time, the bill contains a separate Freight Division that is explicitly focused on goods movement. That section, significant parts of which are based on Cantwell’s National Multimodal Freight Policy and Investment Act (S.1680), includes America’s first-ever national multimodal freight policy, new strategic freight planning, and a program to specifically invest in multimodal freight and port projects. The bill also includes crude-by-rail safety measures that establish enhanced first responder information access, require railroads to develop comprehensive oil spill response plans, and take an incremental step towards regulating the volatility of crude oil being transported by train.

“U.S. growers and manufacturers must be able to efficiently ship their goods to consumers outside our borders, where 95 percent of the world’s consumers live.  Around the world, countries are investing in freight infrastructure to stay competitive in a global economy.  But here at home, we face the economic consequences of an outdated, crumbling transportation network,” said Cantwell. “I fought to include multimodal freight planning and investment provisions in this bill, which reflects a growing consensus both in Washington state and in Congress that we can’t afford to neglect freight any longer.”

The National Multimodal Freight Policy and Investment Act (S.1680), introduced last month by Senators Cantwell, Booker, Murray, and Markey, sought to create a comprehensive, strategic plan for multimodal freight and included a grant program to target investment in our nation’s network of highways, railroads, ports, and intermodal facilities. The DRIVE Act that passed the Senate on Thursday, July 30, adopts this approach to multimodal freight policy and investment, by including a dedicated Freight Division that establishes a National Multimodal Freight Policy, requires the Secretary of Transportation to designate a National Multimodal Freight Network, and requires the development of a National Freight Strategic Plan. The bill also creates a new Freight Investment Grant Program to provide competitive grants to projects specifically focused on improving freight mobility. That program is authorized for $200 million annually over six years. The Cantwell freight bill, and the provisions included in the DRIVE Act, are largely based on recommendations from the National Freight Advisory Committee, a group that Senator Cantwell worked to establish with then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

In addition to strong freight provisions, the DRIVE Act also includes critical safety measures that were outlined in the Cantwell-authored Crude-by-Rail Safety Act, introduced earlier this year. The DRIVE Act requires a report to Congress on the findings of a joint U.S. Department of Transportation/U.S. Department of Energy study on crude oil volatility. It would also require railroads to improve the information available to first responders in real-time, while ensuring that State Emergency Response Commissions can continue to receive crude-by-rail movement information they currently rely on now. In addition, the Department of Transportation would require railroads to develop comprehensive oil spill response plans, and conduct a study into the ability of railroads to pay for cleanup of large-scale incidents.

Additionally, the DRIVE Act creates new funding for grade separation and short-line rail projects that are critical to community economic development and safety, increases federal investment in ferry systems – critical to Washington’s transportation network, maintains a federal commitment to public transportation, and invests in and increases state-supported route transparency of Amtrak.

Freight investment remains a key priority for many in the Washington business community. In July, Senator Cantwell visited Pacific Terminals in Seattle to discuss the importance of freight mobility. Prior to that visit, her office published a report — “Meeting our Growing Competitive Challenges by Improving Freight Infrastructure”— that outlined the clear need for increased investment in freight projects.             

On July 15, following Senate Commerce Committee consideration of safety provisions that were included in the DRIVE Act, Senator Cantwell expressed concern that the bill would roll back safety protections. Some of those concerns were addressed in the final DRIVE Act that passed the Senate, but Cantwell continues to believe that more must be done to improve safety.  Of specific concern was a provision to extend the deadline for the implementation of Positive Train Control crash avoidance technology. Senator Cantwell has voted to oppose extending the Positive Train Control implementation deadline on multiple occasions this year in the Commerce Committee.