There’s been a lot of talk and speculation about the “fiscal cliff.” It has the advantage of specific deadlines and consequences. One way or another, it will force action.
Unfortunately, transportation is facing some upcoming “cliffs” of its own with respect to capacity and infrastructure. In our case, though, the lack of specific deadlines and known consequences enable many to simply hope these challenges go away without serious work to resolve them. They will not.
The capacity challenge is real. It’s difficult to hire qualified drivers. Equipment costs increase, and capital is limited. New entrants are almost nonexistent.
From an infrastructure standpoint, public investment isn’t keeping pace with what’s needed. While we focus — appropriately — on building a national culture of safety through initiatives such as CSA, we seem to be able to do little other than watch as our workplace — the national highway network — becomes ever more unsafe through poorly maintained roadways.
We do see pockets of significant private investment. Railroads with their networks and some motor carriers with their equipment have created effective capacity options, and we’re looking to do more of this. Investments continue to improve performance in transit and reliability on existing lanes that allow intermodal to become a legitimate replacement for traditional truck transportation. Additionally, investments in new geographies are allowing new traffic to be converted.
Still, these innovations won’t solve all of our challenges. If intermodal quadrupled in size from where it is today, it would only transport about 10 percent of what needs to move in the U.S. to keep the wheels of commerce in motion. It is a solution, but cannot be the only one we develop. We need to create attractive, long-term career opportunities for the next generation of drivers and invest in a public infrastructure for them to work in.