Houston Chronicle 5/6/14 By Dug Begley
Congestion on Houston-area freeways costs drivers a lot of time, but freight industry executives say it could soon cost the region jobs — if it hasn’t already.
“If the freight doesn’t move here, then the freight is going to move elsewhere,” said Todd Stewart, president of Gulf Winds International, a Houston-based freight hauling and storage company.
Improving Houston’s aging transportation system is a critical part of attracting and keeping businesses, freight industry representatives said, promising a long-term push to help policymakers understand the link between transportation construction needs and area employment gains. Investing in wider, smoother highways and more overpasses and underpasses at train crossings would have important implications beyond how Houston drivers get around, they said.
Efficient flow of goods to and from the Houston area — whether carried by truck, train or ship — is the source of a major part of the area’s workforce and helps lure companies that rely on shipping or receiving goods. The costs of everything from fruits to household items also trickle down to consumers, industry leaders said, as inefficiency forces companies to spend more to carry freight.
Texas voters in six months will decide whether to use $1.4 billion from the state’s rainy day fund to complete long-sought highway projects and pour more money into road maintenance.
State lawmakers approved placing the proposal in front of voters last year in the final act of the legislative session.
Meanwhile, federal officials are beginning discussions of the next national transportation bill, which could include more money for projects, especially those related to freight movement.
As elected officials at all levels of government begin to push for certain investments, local groups are organizing — with help from businesses — their own arguments for widening freeways, improving railroad connections and upgrading local and regional roads.
“November is the first step, but just a first step,” said Andrea French, executive director of the Houston Transportation Advocacy Group, referring to the transportation fund election. The advocacy group is a cadre of local business leaders who argue for more highway and transit investment.
Freight industry leaders and others interested in greater transportation spending said businesses must get more vocal about the need to improve roads.
“Quite frankly, not every tax is a bad tax,” said Brian Fielkow, president of JetCo Delivery. “Spending on infrastructure is an investment in the future… We were left a world-class system, and I worry we are leaving the next generation a much worse system.”
Texas Department of Transportation officials estimate, using Texas A&M data, that the state needs $4 billion annually to meet its existing transportation needs, on top of the $10 billion already spent each year.
In the Houston region, trucking has added 6,300 jobs since local employment hit bottom in January 2010, according to the Greater Houston Partnership.
Though the economy and by extension the trucking industry is booming in Houston, there are rumblings that congestion could send shipping containers — and jobs — elsewhere.
Even at current demand for hauling, the trucking industry faces a nationwide driver shortage, something freight industry executives fretted about at a Friday luncheon.
“If that need is not filled, then you all ain’t going to be wearing clothes,” joked Danny Smith, vice president of state government affairs at UPS.
More construction and hiring, however, isn’t a cure-all, freight officials said. Using the roads more efficiently is another solution, though a complex one.
“The Port (of Houston) is open a relatively normal day,” Fielkow said. “If our trucks could be using the infrastructure later at night, and be on the freeway when there’s maybe not as much traffic, that could be a better use.”
Changing the port container facility’s 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours of operation, however, isn’t as simple as keeping the gates open. The port is an international hub, meaning U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials would have to stay on site longer, adding to government costs. Local warehouses would also see their hours shift to accommodate later or earlier deliveries.
Starting that conversation is critical, officials said, as is finding consensus on how to pay for transportation investments. The rainy day fund proposal involves, at most, one-third the amount officials estimate they need.
Freight industry officials remain divided on other possible remedies. Some favor raising the gas tax, untouched since 1993, while some politicians think cargo fees are the better solution, so the fee can be placed on freight, then passed on to consumers.
Others remain skeptical of the latter plan.
“We don’t want to do anything to discourage cargo coming into Houston,” Stewart said. “You have to be competitive.”
Freight industry argues congestion may cost jobs
Houston Chronicle 5/6/14 By Dug Begley