As Congress considers how to spend the Highway Trust Fund by May 31 and what language to put into a renewed spending bill, the trucking and the railroad industries are at odds. Trucking wants language to allow for bigger trucks; the rail industry doesn’t because that could divert business. Meanwhile there is the ongoing problem of decaying infrastructure on which all transportation depends. So here we go again, as President Reagan would say, listening to bickering about which mode of transportation is greener and safer. Indeed, the railroad industry and the trucking industry have waged a love-hate relationship since rubber-tired vehicles began hauling freight and competing with the railroads.

The real problem at hand is that the transportation business is segmented into modal silos. For both trucking and rail, operating and capital costs have continually risen while, until recently, excess capacity has kept rates and profit margins low. Each industry has had to constantly find ways to improve productivity. All low-hanging fruit has been harvested so the battle intensifies. Complicating matters is that not only is the transportation business segmented, so is its regulation, which is divided among a variety of Federal, State, and local agencies. And Congressional committees have their own parochial interests.  

ADVERTISEMENT

At stake is financial viability. The trucking industry has relied on increasingly longer trucks for greater efficiency. The standard 40-foot trailer prior to 1980 grew to 45 feet, then 48 feet, and now reaches 53 feet and more. Certain states also allow triples, a combination of 28-foot “pup” trailers that together measure 84 feet plus the tractor. Each time the trucking industry asks for larger vehicles it claims that longer trucks mean fewer trucks, less traffic congestion and use of polluting fuel. However, since 1980 the number of tractor-trailers on the nation’s highways rose from 1.4 million to 2.6 million, according to the Federal Highway Administration.            

As for the railroad business, it has increased efficiency by reducing five or six-person crews to two or three persons. Higher horsepower locomotives now pull higher-capacity freight cars on longer and faster trains. The rail industry argues that ever-larger trucks will compromise safety, especially as passenger cars get smaller and intermingle with 80,000-pound behemoths on shared highways. Bigger trucks do require longer stopping distances and have less agile handling capabilities, especially in bad weather.  

Both industries have individually underwritten studies that prove only their own arguments, but the truth centers on money. Trucking companies typically earn but 5 to 10 cents on the dollar. Railroads have recently been able to earn close to 20 cents, but they also have vastly more capital invested in maintaining, renewing, and expanding infrastructure.           

So what is Congress to do? According to a non-partisan study by the Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver, America remains beset by traffic congestion, increasing fuel consumption and its environmental pollution. Despite Federal transportation industry laws, some 200 of them, there is no Congressional mandate to “replace the fragmented modal players into a single, integrated, seamless, intermodal transportation system,” and the country needs that, say the study’s authors.  

Congress would be wise to heed the advice. Traditional ways of investing public dollars is expensive and piecemeal, such as adding a lane to a congested highway. Expensive infighting by the modal players risks putting limited funds in the wrong places. Far better would be to evolve a truly strategic, intermodal point of view.                                    

The demands on our infrastructure, and on various modes of transportation, will only increase in coming years. We ought to prepare for the next two decades with a blueprint of benchmarked, measurable priorities set by a non-partisan panel of experts in the transportation industry. We need a study that will help forecast the optimal mix of modes and vehicles to move our nation’s freight. What sizes and weights are required?  What impact would this have on the infrastructure, capacity, congestion, fuel consumption, pollution, and productivity? What capital requirements would support the strategy and enable infrastructure improvements and investments?            

The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission released a seminal report in 2007 that stated: “We need to invest at least $225 billion annually from all sources for the next 50 years to upgrade our existing system to a state of good repair.” Given limited resources, the time is right to encourage Congress to fund a comprehensive, holistic plan for intermodal transportation that makes long-term economic sense.

Bentz is president of Supply Chain Consulting for Transplace, a non-asset based  provider of logistics technology and transportation management.