Don Phillips | Paris | October 14
IHT – China, Europe and the United States are facing serious problems moving the world’s burgeoning load of freight and passengers, and the U.S. government has failed even to recognize its looming crisis, according to some American transportation officials and scholars studying the issue.
The U.S. problems are detailed in a university policy paper produced by transportation leaders and academics. Members of the task force that conducted the study said it was clear that among the world’s growing industrial powers, only China recognized the seriousness of its situation.
“America’s long and successful ride to prosperity is threatened by a transportation infrastructure incapable of meeting future requirements,” said the paper by the University of Denver Intermodal Transportation Institute. “The interdependent network of roads, bridges and terminals is growing increasingly antiquated, congested and disconnected and therefore incapable of providing the productivity and prosperity support upon which the nation has depended for the last century and a half.”
Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, took issue with statements from members of the group that produced the study but said the report itself “literally reads like our playbook for taking the nation’s transportation systems into the 21st century.”
Members of the task force that conducted the study said it was clear that among the world’s growing industrial powers, only China was willing to spend the billions necessary to address the problem. Europe acknowledges the issue and has had success in moving passengers by rail, but it falls behind the United States in solving the problem of freight movement, they said.
One emerging element in global transportation problems is a shift in global patterns because of China’s economic boom. China is eager to build the infrastructure necessary to support its galloping expansion.
China is soaking up more of the world’s manufactured products and raw materials than ever before, members of the task force said. It is at least partly responsible for an uptick in heavy manufacturing and mining in the United States. Heavy products like cement, kaolin clay and some grades of coal have seen increased demand.
One example is the increase in the mining in West Virginia of metallurgical coal, which is used in making steel. Although the United States once supplied Europe with metallurgical coal, Australia and South Africa have largely taken over that market over the past two to three years. However, China is now soaking up a portion of Australian and South African coal, forcing Europe to return partly to the U.S. market.
Those who produced the policy paper said U.S. transportation systems had been unprepared for an increase in the movement of heavy manufactured goods in the past two years.
The U.S. economy in the 1990s was driven by increases in the service industry and computer-related industries. But the latest uptick in the economy also reflects a manufacturing resurgence that has taxed heavy-haul freight companies. Most railroads, truck lines and ports simply did not have enough workers or capacity to handle the upsurge smoothly.
Oddly, this resurgence in U.S. shipping hit just as its railroad system was completing a two-decade effort to eliminate excess capacity and become more efficient. This was made possible by legislation in the early 1980s to free the railroad system of government regulation.
U.S. officials have paid attention only to aviation congestion and have largely ignored other passenger- and freight-related issues, including how to get people to and from airports, the task force members said.
For instance, only 25 percent of U.S. commercial airports have any bus service, and many of these services are too infrequent to be an attractive alternative for passengers, they said.
All forms of surface transportation in the United States – road, rail and maritime – are crowded in places, and the situation is worsening rapidly, the policy paper said. Yet the U.S. government is paying little attention. And rather than embracing the passenger train as one solution to the problem, as Europe has done, the United States is starving an already inadequate Amtrak system, members said.
The report, which has not yet been made public, is couched in cautious language. But members of the task force were blunt in criticizing the U.S. government.
“I don’t see anyone in power doing something about this,” said Ted Prince, a vice president of the institute and a senior vice president at Optimization Alternatives, a provider of software solutions and consulting services to major corporations. During the first two presidential debates, Prince pointed out, “no one mentioned transportation.” Like many U.S. transportation specialists, Prince is advising the Chinese government rather than the U.S. government on transportation.
Prince said the Federal Highway Administration predicts that U.S. highway traffic will increase by 24 percent in the next decade and 53 percent over the next two decades. Congestion peaks during rush hours have also surged during the past two decades, he said, and “it is unclear how ports will handle the envisioned tripling of international trade in the near future. Airports are increasingly saturated and railroads are struggling to handle business growth.”
Thomas Finkbiner, chairman of Quality Distribution, a large truck line, said the U.S. government had failed for many years to recognize the seriousness of the problem.
“There’s no policy in this administration on transportation, and there hasn’t been one for several administrations,” he said. Finkbiner said his company was typical of most trucking companies. Congestion is taking such a toll that it is difficult to keep drivers, and the company has been forced to impose a $450-per-trailer surcharge in New York; Newark, New Jersey; Boston; Detroit; and Chicago. He is considering expanding the charge to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and Dallas.
Congestion is so bad in the New York area that a driver can make only one trip per day from the Port of Newark to nearby locations in the metropolitan area. This is not only costly, he said, but drivers grow frustrated and quit.
Only two U.S. railroads, Norfolk Southern and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, appear to have seen the new upsurge coming in time, hiring and training thousands of new conductors and engineers for the upsurge. The giant Union Pacific system and the largest U.S. port, Los Angeles-Long Beach, were caught short of workers and are still experiencing freight backups.
The report said that in addition to a lack of attention from the top, inaction by Congress and a lack of vision by the Transportation Department must share the blame for the U.S. situation.
Rush Loving, a Baltimore consultant and member of the faculty at the Denver transportation institute, said the Transportation Department “seems to be concentrating more on the business of the routine.” In Congress, “there has been no new legislation and no focus that I know of.”
Transportation appointments in the administration of President George W. Bush went to political friends rather than transportation specialists, he said. Some of these appointees have done well while some have not, he said, but all are getting on-the-job experience.
The Bush administration disagreed strongly with statements from the panel members. The administration’s statement said that it “has proposed record levels of spending for surface transportation projects” and the department is “working to rapidly expand the nation’s air traffic capacity.”
The statement said the administration is “investing billions in innovative new projects that better connect different forms of transportation,” as the report suggested, including so-called last-mile projects to connect highways, railroads and ports more efficiently. The administration also is encouraging private industry to form partnerships with states and cities. Research is under way to build more durable, longer-lasting roads, the administration said.
The administration is also working on a “first-of-its-kind” approach to expanding ports and encouraging coastal and waterway shipping to relieve pressure on highways and railroads.
The policy paper laid out a six-point plan for transportation:
Improve freight terminals and the connections between different modes of transportation.
Design passenger terminals to combine all modes of transportation – air, train and bus.
Reduce short-distance air traffic at congested airports, either by switching passengers to ground transportation or moving short-distance traffic to less congested airports.
Expand rail passenger traffic and intercity bus service “in promising markets.”
Redevelop military bases into freight hubs.
Acknowledge that freight and passenger transportation “are equally important” and that they share infrastructure.
“For too long the United States has focused myopically on creating isolated modal transportation networks,” the paper said.
“It needs to turn the corner now and create a single comprehensive integrated intermodal transportation system. In this way, waste and congestion will be alleviated, productivity and efficiency improved, and employment and prosperity enhanced.”