Time to get serious

Time to get serious

Some people are disappointed that transportation was ignored in this year's election campaign. They shouldn't be. Political campaigns are more show-biz than substance, and transportation policy doesn't provide good sound bites or talking points. Even if Bush or Kerry had wanted to raise the subject, their handlers would have said no.

That doesn't mean transportation issues aren't important. Come Wednesday morning, shippers and carriers will face the same problems they faced before the election - poor rail service, delays at container ports, service cutbacks by financially shaky airlines, highway traffic jams in and around cities, and aging locks on inland waterways.

However, now that the campaign is mercifully over (and both candidates can drop the common-man act and put their coats and ties back on), there's a renewed opportunity for serious discussion of transportation issues.

The Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver took a step in that direction with a recent policy paper. The paper's lead authors were Paul Stephen Dempsey, an attorney and professor, and Ted Prince, senior vice president of Optimization Alternatives Ltd. and a monthly JoC columnist.

Their manifesto cited transportation's importance to the economy and the environment, and questioned whether the existing system can handle expected increases in cargo demand. It noted that the excess capacity that existed in the pre-deregulation era has been absorbed by growth in demand and the shedding of marginal assets and infrastructure.

The paper said government policies should encourage smooth connections between transport modes, provide infrastructure funding where it's needed most, and focus on the needs of shippers and passengers instead of transportation providers. The overall goal, the paper's authors said, should be "maximizing total transportation throughput - rather than increasing the flow within individual modes."

Recommendations include reorganizing the Department of Transportation intermodally instead of with separate administrations for highway, rail, aviation and public transit; improving the collection of data that support policy decisions; and new transportation funding approaches such as a federally chartered transportation-finance corporation that would issue tax-credit bonds.

The DOT said the report contains nothing new, which probably is true, and said it has already identified and proposed solutions to the problems the paper cited. That, however, doesn't make the policy paper's recommendations any less valid.

Transportation capacity has emerged as perhaps the biggest problem facing supply-chain managers. It's a credit to their hard work and ingenuity that they've been able to work around the system's inefficiencies and keep things running as smoothly as they have. Their jobs aren't getting any easier - cargo volumes are expected to double in the next 15 years. And the next election is only four years away.

Joseph Bonney is editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at (973) 848-7139, or via e-mail at jbonney@joc.com.