Win-win situation

Win-win situation

It is anyone's guess whether a fiscal stimulus bill that targets infrastructure will emerge out of the lame-duck Congress. It is also anyone's guess whether the Obama administration will embrace the national freight strategy that is gathering dust on the Department of Transportation's shelves.

What is certain, however, is that next September, SAFETEA-LU, the federal highway bill that allocates $300 billion or so over five years from the federal gas tax, will expire. For a shipping public that experiences growing hardship because of what the National Retail Federation calls "decades of underinvestment in freight transportation infrastructure," planning for reauthorization of the current spending plan is where freight interests need to focus in 2009.

History says that freight priorities will be all but ignored in the national blueprint on how Highway Trust Fund money will be spent. And if history is to repeat itself again, all freight interests need to do is present themselves as bickering brethren when taking a seat at the bigger transportation table.

There is no shortage of risk that this will happen. One of the oldest antagonisms in freight transportation has the potential to rear its head and, in so doing, make the successor to SAFETEA-LU another in a long line of lost opportunities to remake the freight system into a benefit rather than a hindrance to national competitiveness.

This antagonism is not between shippers and carriers, longshoremen and employers or even utilities and railroads. It's between railroads and motor carriers. These two powerful, indispensible freight modes may cooperate for mutual benefit when it comes to intermodal, but they have a hard time getting beyond the mistrustful coexistence that has simmered between them for decades.

It wasn't always that way. From the 1930s, when the trucking industry emerged, through the 1950s, trucks and railroads had little reason for antagonism. Trucks plied state highways and back roads, infrequently making extended trips, while railroads handled long-haul freight.

That changed dramatically with the advent of the Interstate Highway System beginning in the 1950s. The wonderfully wide and straight corridors allowed average truck speeds to shoot up from 30 to 50 mph and average payload weight to double. All of a sudden, trucks, with their infinite route flexibility, greater speed and superior service, were competitive for long-haul freight. Huge quantities of boxcar traffic shifted into trucks.

Amid this transformation and the hostility it engendered among railroads, Southern Railway rejected a request by trucker Malcom McLean to ship his trailers on the railroad's flatcars, a factor that led him to start his Newark-Houston container shipping service in 1957. Railroads first created intermodal service not as a cooperative gesture but as a defensive maneuver to find volume for underutilized flatcars and railyards from shippers willing to trade slower transit times for a lower rate.

It did little to improve trucking-railroad relations, which reached a nadir in 1974 when someone slipped unnoticed into the final highway bill an increase in truck weight limits from 73,280 to 80,000 pounds, without so much as a hearing or the provision having appeared in the original House or Senate bills.

The relationship hadn't improved much by the 1990s, when the railroads responded to an effort by truckers to raise the weight limit again by running a series of ads showing a woman in a car with children being sandwiched by two large and menacing tractor-trailers.

The dynamics play out today. Truckers want to increase the weight limit to 90,000 pounds, arguing that their industry needs to handle more freight per truck to offset the lack of expansion of road capacity and the difficulty in finding drivers. Railroads have been trying to obtain an investment tax credit to spur capacity expansion, which truckers, while not outright opposing, are certainly uncomfortable with.

But times have changed. With the recession providing a window to deal with pressing freight issues, now is the time to get resolution for the benefit of the nation's long-term interests. If highway funds could help pay for grade separations and intermodal connectors, that benefits trucking, rail and, most importantly, their customers. If the rails support higher weight restrictions and the truckers in turn support the investment tax credit, it could spark the type of win-win scenario the nation needs to resolve major challenges.

The only party missing in the equation is the shipper. A push by shippers, whose credibility arguably dwarfs that of the transportation modes, could make all the difference.