WASHINGTON — President Obama was set to sign a five-year transportation bill Friday that could help ease the transport of billions of dollars’ worth of products for U.S. retailers and apparel brands.
Congress sent Obama a $305 billion bill dubbed “The Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015” late Thursday night, the product of a conference committee that reconciled differences between House and Senate bills.
“Last night, Democrats and Republicans came together to pass a transportation bill that will help us build on America’s progress by growing our economy and creating more good jobs for our middle class,” Obama said. “This bill is not perfect, but it is a commonsense compromise, and an important first step in the right direction. I look forward to signing this bill right away, so that we can put Americans to work rebuilding our crumbling roads, bridges, and transit systems, reauthorize the Export-Import Bank that helps our companies compete around the world, and give local and state governments and employers the certainty they need to invest and hire for the long term.”
The bill includes major reforms that would strengthen the nation’s freight infrastructure, which is critical for retailers moving a significant volume of products through U.S. ports, railroads and highways every year. It also includes a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank and the establishment of a port performance statistics program that could eventually help companies track congestion at the nation’s ports.
David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, said in a letter to lawmakers before the final votes that the legislation “will not only bring predictability to infrastructure projects, but also focuses on improving the safety and efficiency of goods movement throughout the supply chain.”
French said a key component of the bill establishes a multimodal national freight policy.
“FAST as a whole places a focus on freight movement and the needs of the system to address the growing needs of the freight system,” French said. “The conference report also includes provisions to address productivity and efficiency issues, while balancing the safety needs.”
“It creates a mechanism to get and publish metrics on port performance for policy makers and industry,” said Stephen Lamar, executive vice president at the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “Among other things this will help in the run-up to the next [labor contract] negotiations.”
An NRF spokeswoman said the bill’s port performance program requires the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics to establish a working group to “include private and public sector participants to develop an agreed upon set of metrics to be included in an annual report.”
“While we would have preferred to have specific metrics included in the bill, it is still very important that the provision remained in the final package,” she said. “DOT/BTS will have 60 days to establish the group and develop the metrics. NRF will certainly weigh in with DOT/BTS with our thoughts on what metrics should be included in the report.”
The push for metrics to measure port congestion stemmed in large part from long delays and costs associated with a West Coast port dispute earlier this year. The port dispute lasted 10 months and caused major congestion and delays at 29 West Coast ports earlier this year. The International Longshore & Warehouse Union, representing nearly 20,000 dockworkers, and the Pacific Maritime Association, representing 72 cargo carriers and terminal operators, reached a five-year agreement at the end of February, which was ratified in May.
Industry groups have been lobbying Congress to establish better ways to monitor port congestion and lauded a bill earlier this year that stalled but would have given more powers to governors to seek quick resolutions on slowdowns, strikes and lockouts.
The transportation bill also reauthorized the Export-Import Bank through fiscal 2019. The bank’s charter expired in June. The bank provides several financing tools, including export credit insurance. It has also provided critical credit insurance guarantees for textile producers and apparel brands over the years.