“Summer Hopes” Lambert’s Lagniappe August 2010

August is an interesting month, as people head off to long expected vacations, kids return to school, and football practices begin. In some ways, August is a month full of expectations and hope. Hopes that the vacation will leave them refreshed, the kids will excel in school, and that your team wins its respective championship. It seems the same optimism is shaping discussions on freight transportation improvements.

Recently, I had the pleasure to meet with Jolene Molitoris, Director of the Ohio Department of Transportation. Ben Ritchey with the Arcadia Group commented after the meeting that when we discussed freight movements, the conversation was very pragmatic. However, when the subject turned onto passenger mobility issues, the focus became more philosophical. This was in contrast to the TRB summer meeting, where I moderated a session on freight corridors. The presenters discussed the importance of broad freight corridors, such as the use of waterways, railroads and building local access that can attract or encourage additional freight traffic. In all cases, the need for long point-to-point freight corridors are seen as important in supporting both regional and national economic growth.

Clearly, philosophy and pragmatism do shape transportation decisions, but the vision of American transportation into the future remains unclear.  Regarding passenger traffic, the discussion tends to focus on the issue of how we will live. The new Urbanism, with a focus on walkable cities connected by public transit, sometimes ignores the global supply chain by assuming everything will be sourced locally. (Michael Vanderbeek with the Port of Long Beach compared this to designing a building without an HVAC system.) At the same time, freight carriers tend to be consumed by pocketbook issues related to regulations and taxes. They expect that the infrastructure they need will be there when their trucks start rolling.

There appear to be some discussion that a clear national policy focusing on prioritizing the main improvements along the corridors may be one approach going forward. This view is echoed by the recently proposed Focusing Resources, Economic Investment, and Guidance to Help Transportation Act of 2010 and the Inland User Board’s recommendations to improve waterway navigation. Such approaches may not be equally shared by all, as priorities are established either by formula competition or by the user community itself to ensure the overall system would get investment in key projects.

Clearly, such a discussion is needed, with strong elements of both theory and reality. The real question is: are these simply summer dreams or will these endure longer than autumn leaves?

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