More than a year ago, the Department of Transportation held 'listening sessions' in which various parties in the intermodal chain explained why someone else should be responsible for inspection, repair and maintenance of intermodal chassis and trailers. Not much has changed since then. Truckers still complain that they have to haul poorly maintained intermodal equipment that often subjects them to safety citations from police or fines for violating federal safety regulations. Ship lines and railroads, which own or lease most chassis used in international shipments, insist there's no evidence that their chassis are less safe than truckers' own equipment.

The Department of Transportation, meanwhile, is still considering a request to issue nationwide regulations that would reduce truckers' responsibility for 'roadability' of intermodal equipment.In response to a request from the American Trucking Associations, the DOT in 1999 issued an advanced notice of proposed rule-making to prohibit anyone from providing a trailer, chassis or container in a condition likely to cause an accident or breakdown. Truckers couldn't be held liable for the condition of equipment that they hadn't been provided with time or space to inspect for safety violations.

Though there appears to be little activity on the roadability front in Washington, the issue has surfaced in several states -- most recently Virginia. Intermodal industry representatives at Hampton Roads last week organized committees to try to devise a plan to clarify responsibility for repair and maintenance. The committees were formed after a state legislator this year agreed to table a bill that would have required ship lines to reimburse truckers for necessary repairs within five days after a driver hauls a chassis from an intermodal terminal.

Virginia truckers are participating in the effort to devise a plan everyone can accept. But they warn that if a fair solution can't be found, they'll renew their push for legislation. At least three states -- South Carolina, Louisiana and Illinois -- already have passed laws to regulate intermodal equipment safety.

Ocean carriers and railroads oppose regulatory legislation. They say the problem is a business issue that the affected businesses should be allowed to settle. 'There are other issues for governments at the state, federal and local levels to get involved in,' said Joni Casey, president of the Intermodal Association of North America. She noted that IANA has launched several initiatives to encourage better maintenance of intermodal equipment.

Truckers say roadability is a public policy issue -- safety on the highways -- and that federal involvement is needed. 'The trucking industry is very serious about our responsibility to maintain and operate safe equipment. The intermodal community should do the same,' said Walter B. McCormick Jr., the ATA's president. 'DOT regulations specifically state that those who control the equipment are responsible for maintenance and repair. There should be no loopholes that would allow these companies to avoid their responsibility for maintenance and force motor carriers to put unsafe equipment on the highways.'

Controversy over roadability is an unavoidable byproduct of intermodalism, a system in which as many as a half-dozen parties may be involved in the handling of a single cargo movement, often using someone else's equipment. Practices at intermodal terminals vary widely. Some terminals do a good job of maintaining their equipment. Others skimp on maintenance and run their chassis until the wheels are ready to fall off. Many intermodal terminals are congested, which aggravates the problem of unsafe equipment. Most container haulers are paid by the trip, and some knowingly accept defective equipment rather than wait for equipment that's in good order.

The problem is almost ubiquitous. Although more than 1 million trucks move in out of the gates of Virginia's marine terminal in an average year, industry executives say problems there aren't noticeably worse than average, and that they probably are less severe than at other ports.

Ship lines and railroads rightfully worry about a proliferation of conflicting state regulations on intermodal equipment could cause chaos. But unless commercial solutions can be devised, we can expect more legislation at the state level -- and possibly even in the nation's capital. That's why so many people are watching to see what happens in Virginia.

Joseph Bonney is deputy editor of JoC Week. He can be reached at (973) 848-7139, or via e-mail at jbonney