March Newsletter 2013 – Scuffy the Tugboat and Rivers of Freight

Recently, I gave a speech where I mentioned Scuffy the Tugboat. For those not familiar with the story, Scuffy is a toy tugboat  who travels from a little stream to the mouth  of a large river. In reflecting upon this story, I realized that, when talking about transportation planning and policy, we tend to focus  on two areas: the broad stroke of the system  (what I call the “Big F” of freight) or the local,  smaller shipments (what I call the “little f”).  Oftentimes, it is the “Big F” that gets the attention, such as the growth in international trade or a trade lane between two markets,  ports and/or border crossings. We tend to overlook the “little f,” which includes the local bakery, grocery store, and small manufacturing plant, all of whom receive and generate  freight shipments.

These small firms are important to the nation. For example, there are over 5.7 million firms in the United States, of which 5.1 million  firms have fewer than twenty employees. For the ITTS region, there are almost 1 million  firms, of which roughly 88% are firms with  less than 20 employees. At the same time, there are roughly 293,000 firms engaged  in exporting, of which roughly 97.8% were  small- to medium-sized companies.

The complexity arises when we tend to  think about national policy in the terms  of the “Big F”, but then consider our own  regional needs as a mix of both “Big F” and  “little f ” elements. But clearly, we do not  necessarily think about the system as being  beyond our respective state borders. According to the Freight Analysis Framework, trading among the SASHTO states is the region’s largest freight flow, followed by intrastate  trade within the member states. Regionally, freight movements internal to the region  accounted for 60% of the tonnage moved  in 2010. The other movements consisted of  international trade or shipments with other  domestic U.S. markets.

The need to look at the regional importance of these corridors becomes important,  both in supporting the primary freight  network as outlined by MAP-21, but also to  improving our own regional economies. So,  it is important to the region to see itself as  a series of corridors (or “My River” as Scuffy  would say).

At the end of the story, Scuffy was scared as he headed out to the ocean, only to be  rescued by the “Man with the Polka Dot  Tie”. In some ways, the economic clouds  and waves continue to swirl around, but  instead of being frightened, we should see  this as an opportunity to understand our  interrelationships, largely carried on these  rivers of commerce, which support both “Big”  and “little” freight traffic.

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