DOT and trucking

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I can assure you that truck transportation is and will remain an essential component of the nation’s freight system.” –Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a letter to Bill Graves, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations

There’s been a lot of concern of late over the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) perception of the trucking industry: namely, that trucks should be increasingly supplanted by trains and marine transport for U.S. freight hauling needs.

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For example, peruse some of the comments Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made during a National Port Summit this past February in San Diego on the topic of expanding the use of so-called “marine highways” to handle U.S. freight needs.

Incentives for cargo owners and surface transportation service providers can be aimed at inducing the re-direction of freight and passengers that better utilizes the excess capacity of our marine highways. Expanding the use of our underutilized Marine Highways, while not the answer to all freight and passenger transportation problems, also addresses several of the Administration’s priorities. It can help reduce congestion on our surface transportation corridors, improving the delivery of freight and passengers. This is good for economic recovery and jobs. It helps us conserve energy, especially our use of foreign oil, and it can help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is one of the few programs that can contribute to all these objectives without having a downside.

Now, I for one think using marine highways and truck transportation TOGETHER offers benefits to both modes and to the nation as a whole. But many within trucking feel that LaHood’s comments, when placed alongside others in support of intermodal and rail freight transport, seem to knock the value trucks offer in terms of efficient freight hauling.

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Bill Graves, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, sure thought so and he wrote a letter to LaHood back in April laying out his concerns along those lines:

The trucking industry is concerned about recent statements by DOT officials suggesting that freight rail and marine highways can haul the freight now carried by trucks. The Administration persistently states their desire to invest in non-highway programs to “unclog some of our highways” and “get gas-guzzling trucks off the road.”

[Yet] very little freight moves solely by rail. Trucks are needed to take the freight to the railroad or from the railroad to the final destination, or both. The same holds true for short sea shipping. Even if subsidies of both sectors grow, trucks will continue to carry the bulk of our nation’s freight. Taking trucks off the road, as the Administration suggests, would bring our nation’s supply chain to a screeching halt.

It’s a gross misconception that the ability exists to significantly ease congestion by shifting freight from the roads to the rails. Railroads reach just one-fifth of U.S. communities. Even if intermodal rail tonnage doubled by 2010, intermodal rail would still account for just 1.8% of freight movements, compared with the 1.5% that is currently projected for 2020. By comparison, trucks will move 71% by 2020.

Another misconception is that shifting freight from highways to railroads will result in less congestion near urban areas. Intermodal ramps concentrate truck traffic in one location, so any truck traffic that was eliminated would be largely in rural areas. Truck trips needed for intermodal pickup and deliver would remain on urban highways.

Now, while I don’t agree with all of his points (I, for one think, freight being shifted to intermodal and short-sea shipping would indeed alleviate roadway congestion) Graves makes some very valid observations in terms of trucking’s important role in the nation’s many supply chains. “There’s no denying the challenges facing our nation’s transportation system, but we cannot lose sight of all the transportation options,” he said.

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LaHood responded this month to Graves and basically said, yes, trucks are important and that the DOT doesn’t think they can be replaced.

Without a strong and efficient truck transportation system, the nation’s standard of living would suffer. Trucks … will continue to play an essential role in ensuring the economic health and growth of the country, maintaining the U.S.’s position as a leader in international trade.

Yet LaHood also laid out in his letter to Graves an important caveat that the industry would be wise to remember: DOT’s goal when it comes to freight transportation, as LaHood sees it, is to achieve “maximum freight efficiency” as well as reducing this sector’s environmental impact. And that means LaHood and the DOT remain firmly committed to examining “multi-modal” opportunities for shipping a wide variety of goods.

I am a strong advocate of improving all of our nation’s freight transportation systems so that we can take advantage of the economic, safety, energy, and environmental advantages inherent in each mode. This will allow us to advance intermodal solutions that achieve maximum efficiency in moving goods both in domestic markets and for export. Some optimal solutions may be limited to a single freight mode, while others will require the integration of two or more modes. The unique advantages of truck transportation will be instrumental in helping the Department [DOT] reach these solutions.

Whether you agree with LaHood’s vision of not, it’s now part of the DOT’s strategic view of the U.S. freight picture – and trucking’s role within that picture.

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