U.S. freight transportation system called lacking

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A new report warns of coming gridlock in the nation's freight transportation system: trucks stuck on congested highways, and underdeveloped rail systems and waterways unable to pick up the slack.

"Millions of jobs and our nation's long-term economic health are at risk," says "Unlocking Freight," released at three news conferences on Thursday, including one in Harrisburg attended by Gov. Ed Rendell.

"Our highways, railroads, ports, waterways, and airports require investment well beyond current levels to maintain -- much less improve -- their performance," said the report, prepared for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

"This report outlines what's at stake if we fail to invest to meet the growing demands on our transportation infrastructure," said Mr. Rendell, who is part of a nationwide coalition urging more spending.

"We know that the capacity of our nation's roads, rails and seaports is simply not keeping pace with demand. For example, between 1980 and 2006, traffic on the Interstate Highway System increased by 150 percent while interstate capacity grew by only 15 percent," Mr. Rendell said.

One of the report's recommendations -- a 15 percent expansion of the interstate system -- likely will be controversial among groups that believe transportation spending has been historically skewed toward highways and should be redirected to mass transit.

In addition to adding 32,000 lane-miles to the 210,000 in the interstate system, the report recommends creation of a national freight program, with multistate freight corridor organizations, and increased investment in facilities that connect various modes of transportation.

Highway congestion already is a costly problem for freight haulers, the report said. An analysis of the 10 worst U.S. interchange bottlenecks revealed that each causes more than a million hours of truck delays per year, wasting $19 billion and driving up consumer costs.

"It's unfortunate that many of the 35 million travelers who hit the road for the Fourth of July holiday this past weekend spent hours of their vacation time stuck in traffic," said John Horsley, AASHTO executive director. "Ten thousand commercial trucks face that kind of gridlock every day."

It will get worse, the report predicted. Within 20 years, the number of trucks on the road will increase by 50 percent, pushed by a rising population's increased demand for food, clothing and other goods shipped by truck.

By 2035, the report said, railroads are expected to carry 38 percent more freight than at present.

"An issue is whether the railroads can expand fast enough to keep up with this demand. If they cannot, much of this growth will be shifted to the highway system. Because much of the highway system is already overloaded with traffic, state departments of transportation have a stake in seeing as much long-haul freight as possible transported by rail," it said.

The Association of American Railroads in 2007 said $135 billion in infrastructure investment will be needed over the next three decades for the nation's big long-haul freight railroads to keep pace with demand.

Pennsylvania has increased rail freight investment from $14.3 million in 2003 to $66.5 million last year, Mr. Rendell said. "We are only scratching the surface of what is actually needed to meet the demand," he said.

The state and four others are seeking $115 million in federal funding for improving the Crescent Corridor, a freight rail system stretching to Alabama.

Waterways, by far the cheapest way to ship goods, are hobbled by an antiquated system of locks and dams, the report noted.

More than half of the 240 locks funded by the Army Corps of Engineers are 50 years old or older. "Many locks currently in use are too small for today's larger tows. They are susceptible to closures and long delays for maintenance and repairs, resulting in lines and long wait times for users," the report said.

Ten million people work in freight in the U.S., including truckers, railroad workers, warehouse operators and others, the report said. Transportation is a $1.2 trillion industry that generates 8 percent of the nation's jobs and supports industries that make up 84 percent of the economy.

"Some seem to think that the nation is now built for all time and that we can continue to prosper without expanding our transportation system. They are wrong," said AASHTO's president, Larry Brown of Mississippi. "The simple fact is: no transportation, no economy."

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com.


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