Enabling Oil

Enabling Oil

Copyright 2006, Traffic World, Inc.

There are, with some minor variations, generally two ways to cope with addiction. One is to shake off the addiction, somehow, someway. The other less talked about but infinitely more popular approach we''re disappointed to say, is to simply feed the addiction.

If we as a nation are "addicted to oil," as President Bush said last month, then the 2007 fiscal year federal budget for transportation suggests the administration is choosing the well-traveled path toward enabling the oil habit. The overall numbers for transportation are troubling enough - and a deep cut in the Department of Transportation budget is certainly a sign of trouble. But the numbers behind the plan are even more troubling and say a great deal about the White House priorities for this critical part of the economy.

The country''s approach to transportation has long been marked by a disconnect between the modes of transportation, a flaw that fails to recognize the efficiency and productivity that can come when we recognize the connections across transport networks and plan for the potential that those links can bring. That failure is in the long tradition of transport planning in Washington, but it''s especially critical now as congestion and infrastructure problems threaten to undercut the country''s economic expansion.

Truckers are recognizing that. We have heard from leading trucking executives in recent weeks who have said the nation''s roads are in such need that, yes, we need to talk about raising the gas tax.

Don''t even think about raising the idea of a tax increase with the White House, however, even with business executives who are all but wearing "tax me" lapel pins.

But the biggest disconnect of all may be that the country is trying to cope with its addiction to oil even as we talk about the need for more highways. One of those business leaders, FedEx Freight''s Douglas Duncan, acknowledged that contradiction when he said one solution to highway congestion is to invest more in mass transit.

What we get instead in the White House budget is $100 million for federal transit spending than Congress has already approved, a $394 million cut in Amtrak spending and elimination of a loan program for rail improvements. Such programs can do more to take traffic off the roads next year while the DOT is investing in alternative fuels that, if they defy all odds and are successful, would only feed the addiction.

Like the pork-laded highway bill last year, the White House budget suggests intermodal connectors don''t even exist - and if it were up to federal help, such cost-saving, congestion-reducing, efficient infrastructure might as well be converted to hydrogen power research labs.

Yet there are countless ways to treat the freight industry''s "addiction to oil" - expand the Alameda Corridor, fully fund the Chicago CREATE project, expand inland waterways with infrastructure for container-on-barge handling, support connections that bring short-haul intermodal service into better economic focus.

No single project is a complete cure, of course, but no one ever said you can overcome an addiction in a single step.