WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Transportation has yet to stand up a government office crucial to freight transportation, a worrying sign that new infrastructure projects worth billions in federal dollars may not be receiving the attention and oversight they need.

DOT’s Office of Multimodal Freight Infrastructure and Policy (Freight Office), authorized by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) enacted on Nov. 15, 2021, was given wide-ranging responsibilities related to funding and coordinating the development of transportation projects.

In addition to overseeing many of DOT’s competitive grant programs, the Freight Office — for which congressional appropriators recently allotted $7.3 million in the 2024 fiscal year budget — is tasked with carrying out the country’s national multimodal freight policy, as well as helping the private and public sectors share information on freight issues and working with cities and states to develop freight-movement expertise.

DOT in June provided an update on the status of the office to key Congressional committees, according to committee staffers contacted by FreightWaves. However, President Biden has yet to appoint an Assistant Secretary for Multimodal Freight, a Senate-confirmed position charged with heading up the office.

DOT spokeswoman Kerry Arndt told FreightWaves in April that DOT “is actively undertaking a department-wide effort” to develop the Freight Office but declined to provide specific details on progress so far. “We look forward to sharing more publicly in the coming months,” she said.

DOT officials did not respond to a request for a revised update.

Legislative priority

A former committee staff member who worked on the legislation said that establishing a freight office within DOT was a priority during development of the law to create a “one-stop shop” to coordinate various freight policies and grant programs overseen by DOT modal agencies, such as the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Maritime Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration.

Getting the office up and running is particularly important given that the BIL authorized $660 billion in funds for new and existing DOT programs for fiscal years 2022 through 2026 — more than twice the amount in the previous five-year authorization.

“I see it as a supercharged office which, if stood up, is going to be pretty important in terms of coordinating freight policy between the states and DOT and in helping get that grant funding out the door,” the former staffer told FreightWaves.

Elaine Nessle, executive director of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors (CAGTC), with members that include port authorities and state and regional governments, told FreightWaves, “For many years the freight office at the Federal Highway Administration [FHWA] has done a wonderful job at coordinating freight efforts, but they were just for highways.

“But there hasn’t been an overarching effort to look across modes, which is more and more important as we move more and more goods. For some of our members who have received awards for multimodal projects, having that high-level authority to move the funding delivery process along would be extremely helpful.”

FHWA has issued Notices of Funding Opportunity for approximately $4.6 billion in available funds under 10 BIL discretionary grant programs since the law went into effect, according to FHWA Administrator Shailen Bhatt.

At a hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in June, Bhatt said his agency is administering nearly 900 grant awards and cooperative agreements totaling approximately $7.5 billion across nine discretionary programs. An interactive dashboard maintained by the General Services Administration tracks the types of infrastructure grant awards and their locations.

When asked when final agreements would be in place for those projects, Bhatt said his staff has been “working around the clock to get all of these programs stood up. … We want to move swiftly but also thoughtfully to get to successful outcomes.”

Having a freight office in place to oversee and coordinate the grant process among modal agencies would help speed that effort, according to project sponsors, because the process is being held up due to a variety of factors even after funding for road, bridge, port and railroad projects have been awarded.

Environmental permits, federal Buy America requirements and adjusting project costs to take into account inflation are some of the factors that can delay a project post-award — particularly a project that spans different modes.

Overseeing a national freight strategy

Just as important as ensuring that grant awards receive proper oversight is the responsibility given to the new assistant secretary for multimodal freight to oversee the country’s National Freight Strategic Plan (NFSP), a strategy rolled out by DOT in 2020 that is required by statute to be revised in 2025.

Created by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act in 2015, the NFSP forecasts freight volumes in five-, 10- and 20-year periods, identifies major trade gateways and national freight corridors, and identifies bottlenecks on the National Multimodal Freight Network (NMFN). The purpose of the NMFN, which was also created by the FAST Act, is to help states direct grant money toward enhancing freight movement and supply chain efficiency.

A document establishing an interim NMFN was published for two public comment periods in 2016 and 2018. DOT highlighted the NMFN as a “near-term strategy” in the 2020 strategic plan that was to be completed within three years, but it has yet to be formalized.

“We do need a national freight strategy,” said John Wolfe, executive director of the Northwest Seaport Alliance, speaking at a legislative meeting in Washington in April. “I’m not sure we have a coordinated investment strategy so that those dollars get spent most appropriately.”

DOT officials have said publicly over the last several months that delays in implementing provisions of the BIL, including staffing up a new freight office to oversee supply chain policy and investments, are not surprising given the historic amount of public funding that has been set aside for boosting grants and creating new programs.

“We are keenly focused — the president as is our secretary — on doing everything we can to get these projects implemented and to deliver them on time and on budget,” said Transportation Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg during an April press conference.

Infrastructure project backers are hoping DOT makes good on the promise as well.

“We know that there are staff hard at work at assembling the building blocks for this office and have been conducting some initial outreach,” said CAGTC’s Nessle.

“But I would also like to see a launch event by DOT saying that [the Freight Office] is open for business, which would help promote it, increase awareness about the tools and resources it provides and inform stakeholders on how they can become involved.”

Related articles:

Transportation industry representatives attack infrastructure law rollout

Trottenberg brings freight policy experience to DOT

DOT rolls out National Freight Strategic Plan

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.

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