By Jock O'Connell, August 11, 2015
Last month, just as he departed for a Vatican conference on climate change, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order calling
on state agencies to devise by next July an integrated action plan “to
improve freight efficiency, transition to zero-emission technologies,
and increase competitiveness of California’s freight system.”
parallel track, the state Legislature plans to convene a special
session this month to address the condition of a transportation
infrastructure that, in many respects, has been allowed to deteriorate
to third-world standards.
So with the appearance at least of a broad political consensus
coupled with what seems to be a genuine sense of urgency, can we finally
expect state officials to take decisive, concrete steps to improve the
means by which goods get to where they’re supposed to go?
The fact that state government periodically but unsatisfyingly revisits this particular challenge warrants a skeptical eye.
1998, Gov. Pete Wilson issued a Statewide Goods Movement Strategy
filled with detailed analysis and specific recommendations. Four years
later, Gov. Gray Davis put out a proposal-rich Global Gateways Plan of
2002, which was in turn replaced by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s
two-part Goods Movement Action Plan of 2005 and 2007.
leaders go once more into the breach, is there any reason to expect more
tangible results this time? Not unless the fundamental tension inherent
in the governor’s executive order between environmental goals and
economic realities can be successfully massaged.
In short, can
policymakers come up with an action plan that yields cleaner air,
especially on an accelerated timetable, but that does not saddle
seaports, airports, trucking lines, steamship companies and railroads
with costs that undermine their competitiveness and deny them the
profits to invest in expensive new technologies and equipment needed to
make their operations more environmentally benign?
order says, the state’s freight system is responsible for one-third of
California’s economy and jobs, accounting for more than $700 billion in
revenue and 5 million jobs in 2013.
Much of the attention over the
next year will be focused on trade corridors that link California’s
seaports, airports and border crossings with markets throughout the
state and nation. Last year, these gateways handled $702 billion in
trade. Even with congestion and labor disputes, the three major ports –
Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland – handled 43 percent of all
containerized imports entering U.S. ports.
All that international
trade creates tens of thousands of jobs in California along supply
chains that reach out through the Inland Empire counties of San
Bernardino and Riverside and into the Central Valley. The gateways also
serve the state’s manufacturers and farmers, who last year shipped more
than $170 billion in merchandise abroad. And crucially in a state with
ever-widening income disparities and that ranks 48th in the percentage
of adults with no more than a high school education, the freight
industry almost uniquely continues to offer large numbers of unskilled
blue-collar workers a chance to earn middle-class wages.
California’s ports are under siege. Substantial volumes of trade are
being diverted to ports elsewhere, a trend likely to worsen once the new
locks at the Panama Canal open for business next April.
ardor with which Brown has embraced the issue of climate change, no one
should be surprised if his appointees are uncompromising in their zeal
to minimize the environmental impact of freight movement. That much was
foreshadowed at a July 28 meeting of the California Freight Advisory
Council during which a state Air Resources Board official said it was
unrealistic to understand how proposed air-quality regulations might
affect the economics of the freight industry.
So those who move
goods for a living have every right to doubt that the more stringent
environmental regulations already in the pipeline will be offset by
public money for anything more than a pilot transportation project here
and a university research grant there.
So while we continue to pray for rain, let’s also put in a word for sensible, sustainable freight transportation strategy.