Intermodal facing changes and challenges

By: | at 07:00 PM | Channel(s): Intermodal News  

New infrastructure requirements, shifting freight flows present trials for tradeBy Peter A. Buxbaum, AJOTCould intermodalism be the enemy of logistics? The answer is yes, provided you accept Gil Carmichael’s terminology.
“Logistics will go out of business if we build a true intermodal system,” said Carmichael, the Senior Chairman of the Board of the Intermodal Transportation Institute of the University of Denver. “Right now, logistics is the science of how to get a ton of freight through a dysfunctional transportation system. Logistics is not so important if we are able to cargo move seamlessly from one mode to another.”
The current system is lacking, according to Carmichael, because the transportation system in the United States was built on a vertical, modal basis, without much thought about the interconnections between modes. “Each mode was built in isolation,” he said. “Now we are trying to put together systems that are horizontal to go across the modes.”
For Carmichael, intermodalism of the future will be less involved with building horizontal bridges across modes and more involved with building intermodalism into new infrastructure from the beginning. “It’s a whole new approach to thinking about transportation that policy makers don’t understand,” he said.
That trend is already visible. New intermodal yards are springing up in inland ports such as Meridian, MI, where truck, rail, and distribution facilities are all interfaced and planned together. In Fort Worth, Texas, a former industrial airport has been converted into a new integrated rail and truck hub.
One of the keys to building out a new intermodal infrastructure is to find new funding mechanisms to pay for it. The interstate highway system was paid for by the federal gasoline tax, but, Carmichael said, those funds can’t be relied upon to fund intermodal. The highway trust fund is going broke, he said, and raising the gas tax will not be politically viable.
Carmichael foresees an intermodal trust fund being established and funded with highway user fees. “It’s going to be a distance tax, a fee based on miles traveled,” he said. “The technology is already here to enable it.” That technology will involve installing a tracking device on vehicles which will allow transportation authorities to bill highway users for miles driven on its roads over a given period of time.
“The most important thing is that whatever user fees are collected are dedicated to transportation,” said George Woodward, President of the ITI Board of Directors. “That was one of the advantages of the gas tax.”
Whether lawmakers will go for such a scheme remains to be seen. “It’s fair to say that government at all levels has not yet developed an appreciation for intermodal transportation,” said Woodward. Thus far, major intermodal projects, he noted, such as the Alameda Corridor in southern California, have been financed with user fees and local bond issues.
From an industry point of view, an entirely new mindset is required if intermodalism is to be implemented successfully, according to Carmichael. Part of that innovative thinking involves not only blurring the lines between the modes, but also between freight and passenger transportation.
“Most shippers are freight people, and all they want to talk about is hauling freight,” Carmichael said. “But we have to come to grips with the fact that the rails and the highways have to haul both freight and passengers.”
Part of the solution to alleviating the congestion on the highways, which will help both freight and passenger transportation is to develop more high-speed rail passenger service between US cities. Such an infrastructure, Carmichael suggested, could be built out by triple tracking existing freight railroad rights of way through public-private partnerships. Such an effort is already underway in Washington State and in Oregon, he noted.
Woodward goes so far as to say that the redevelopment of the northeast corridor transportation infrastructure should be treated as

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Peter Buxbaum has been writing about international trade and transportation, as well as security, defense, technology, and foreign policy, for over 20 years. Besides contributing to the AJOT, Buxbaum's work has appeared in such leading publications as [em]Fortune, Forbes, Chief Executive, Computerworld, and Jane's Defence Weekly[/em]. He was educated at Columbia University.