Tell your story or others will

Tell your story or others will

That there is a critical need for more transportation infrastructure is not news. That government at national, state and local levels doesn't understand the need also is not news.

Most legislators see transportation as a vehicle for pork-barrel spending on pet projects. Some even see it as a source of new revenue for which no offsetting benefit need be offered, as evidenced by the California Legislature's approval of $30-per-TEU tax.

At least California would dedicate the money extracted from trade to pollution and port security. Some jurisdictions make no effort to connect taxes to the business being taxed.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will handle about 13 million TEUs this year, all of which must move beyond the docks, resulting in congested local roads and the pollution spewed by trucks pulling containers on chassis. It also creates longshore, truck, rail and other jobs directly related to freight movement.

Southern California isn't the only area with a critical need for more infrastructure. Chicago still is a rail and highway bottleneck for efficient, economical movement of freight. The same thing can be said about every major metropolitan area in the U.S.

Infrastructure doesn't just happen. It must be created and funded.

All too often, those who toil in the intermodal world seem focused on avoiding public controversy. While they are quick to speak out, their speaking is to friendly audiences at industry conferences. They talk to reporters for specialized publications who already understand the issues and/or can be counted on to provide favorable treatment. What they don't do is engage in the effort to create more infrastructure where it is most needed. It's fine for railroad, trucking, steamship and port terminal company executives to address seminars and other meetings where their colleagues and competitors will nod in agreement. But these audiences do not drive public policy changes.

Other than readers of The Journal of Commerce and a few other specialized publications, how many people understand the need for more transportation infrastructure? Not many. If there were widespread appreciation of the economic value of transportation, those who propose new taxes might be pressured to dedicate funding to infrastructure improvement.

The intermodal world does a lousy job of advocating why the U.S. should help create more infrastructure. In the world of public affairs and communications, it is axiomatic that if you don't tell your story, your opponent will, and he will tell it from his perspective. Advocates must create an environment that makes it easier for legislators and other government officials to do the right thing. In the intermodal context, that requires education and communication.

Intermodal advocates must explain the benefits they collectively bring to the economy and their importance to merchants and manufacturers who can influence legislators to think twice before they decide to treat intermodal as a cash cow on which they can impose new taxes without commensurate benefit.

Those who move freight intermodally must educate key constituencies that they are part of the good life that we enjoy. In 2002, when a labor dispute closed West Coast ports during the peak shipping season, there were stories in newspapers throughout the country that Santa Claus was stuck on a dock in Southern California and Christmas might not be as jolly as millions of consumers had expected.

This year, as containers flow smoothly through the system, perhaps some intermodalists should be making sure that stories are published that point out that Santa Claus's sleigh doesn't have enough capacity and that he is using double-stacked containers to bring children the toys they want, and that they will be there on time.

More seriously, the intermodal community must let the public and government representatives know how many jobs the logistics system creates. Those workers pay taxes.

Today, the public doesn't even know what intermodal is. Computer word processors don't recognize the word and flag it as questionable (as happened in writing this column). When it comes to funding intermodal and other transportation infrastructure, it is too easy for Congress and state legislators to earmark public money for their pet projects - bridges to nowhere, museums, rainforest exhibits in Iowa, and the like.

Those making a living running the various elements of the intermodal supply chain must tell their story.

Larry Kaufman, former intermodal editor of The Journal of Commerce, has worked in and written about railroads for nearly 40 years. He can be contacted at