Put America on track to better freight system

August 04, 2006|By WENDELL COX

In Baltimore and in cities across America, soaring fuel costs and worsening gridlock are like a one-two punch hitting drivers this summer, pinching our wallets and costing us valuable time lost in traffic.

The gridlock situation is alarming. The average commuter in America spends an extra 43 hours - more than a full workweek - each year caught in traffic.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, freight traffic is expected to increase by two-thirds by 2020. One large truck takes up the same amount of highway space as almost four cars, and the average truck is becoming longer with the increased use of double and triple trailers. With little chance of increasing urban road capacity sufficiently, an increase in truck volume would continue to add to our commuting problems.

FOR THE RECORD - Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota is the Democratic co-sponsor of legislation to stimulate transportation infrastructure investment. The wrong person was named in an article Aug. 4.
The Sun regrets the error.

Motorists can be forgiven for believing that things will continue to worsen, but there are ways to reduce gridlock - and save countless gallons of fuel - by becoming smarter about how we move freight.

Each year, using data from the Texas Transportation Institute, I study the impact of increased freight traffic in our most congested urban areas and report on how re-directing some of this freight from trucks on the highway to freight trains could affect a typical commuter.

In the Baltimore area, by 2025, shifting 25 percent of freight from trucks to freight trains would decrease drivers' commutes by 41 hours. In addition, such a shift would save each commuter $842 in annual congestion costs.

Shifting freight from road to rail also has a positive environmental impact. Freight rail is more fuel-efficient per ton-mile than trucks and reduces fuel consumption of other motorists by decreasing the time drivers spend idling in traffic. For example, by 2025, commuters in the Baltimore area could save 83 gallons of fuel with a 25 percent shift of freight from truck to rail.

Air pollution levels also would improve with an increased use of freight rail. For instance, by 2025, shifting 25 percent of freight to rail would decrease air-pollutant emissions in the Baltimore area by as much as 9,835 tons.

Major road improvement efforts, like the widening of the southwest Outer Loop, and work on the Route 45 (York Road) Streetscape, are clear signs that our highways and bridges cannot withstand the current and projected traffic volumes. Construction and repairs are often expensive and politically contentious. However, freight rail can help stem the tide.

One freight train can carry the equivalent cargo of 500 trucks, and one intermodal train can carry nearly 300 truck trailers. Trucking companies and railroads are already forming intermodal partnerships that combine the best abilities of both modes of transportation. In fact, intermodal is the fastest-growing segment of the rail industry.

To carry more freight, the freight rail industry will need more capacity, which depends on public and private investment. State government highway officials estimate that railroads will only generate $142 billion to invest on their own over the next 20 years, but rail infrastructure needs are estimated to be more than $200 billion.

Congress is starting to take notice. Last month a bipartisan group of senators led by Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, and Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, introduced the Freight Rail Infrastructure Capacity Expansion Act to stimulate transportation infrastructure investment.

The legislation would offer any organization, including railroads, trucking companies and shipping lines, a 25 percent tax credit for its investments. For railroads, the tax incentive would apply to infrastructure such as new track, intermodal facilities and state-of-the-art locomotives - all essential to helping the rail industry continue to provide on-time, quality service to shippers and boost its share of freight transport. The American Association of Port Authorities and the National Retail Federation support this legislation.

We must prepare now for a surge in freight volume and fight gridlock across our nation. Freight rail provides an excellent strategy.

Wendell Cox has studied traffic and gridlock issues for more than 25 years. He is president and CEO of Demographia, a market research and urban policy consultancy. His e-mail is wcox@demographia.com.

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