View Full Version : Time to start thinking about the American people

Michael Ragland
July 10th, 2005, 10:30 AM
I sent the following article to Vice-President Dick Cheney. At least I can be assured somebody will read a few words...maybe. If I knew you could it would be gratifying. Today's generation is less literate than what it was fifty years ago. Sorry but I can't condense or tanslate this information into a video game.

I read an interesting story about how Europeans are tackling highway congestion and trying to put trucks on rail. In the spirit of that I present the following. I've read that Europe and Japan have it even worse than the U.S. and that may be true but comparisons between the large sprawling U.S. and these tiny countries have limited utility. There are serious deficits regarding U.S. rail infrastructure and they need to be mentioned.

The problems outlined below are real and will worsen and the obstacles almost impossible to overcome. I have no illusions of these obstacles being unweaved during this Administration and likely several subsequent Administrations. Therefore, the purpose is to raise awareness of this issue.

The focus here isn't on increasing car traffic volume although that is a problem and subject which also deserves attention and could be partially addressed by more metro-passenger rail service which is increasingly more available and affordable.
I hope you can read between the lines and see this subject is not confined to the Commonwealth of Virginia but is a national as well as international problem. I happen to live in Virginia and am using the possible widening of Route I-81 as a microcosm of what is occurring in other U.S. states and internationally.
Many people who work and/or live in Virginia have heard of the possible widening of Route 81 in Virginia which is a major thoroughfare for truck traffic. Virginia cities Route 81 traverses through are Bristol, Roanoke, Harrisonburg and Winchester. The current widening "study" by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and our representatives will not solve the transportation problems it supposedly seeks to solve and will likely actually worsen them by increasing the truck volume on Route 81 and further exacerbating the need for additional truck parking spaces/rest areas. As always its
an issue of development feeding on development feeding on development feeding on development.

Presently, VDOT maintains there is no current widening project. Technically, that is correct. However, it has discouraged any individual or group from publicly disseminating information about the project. On the website http://www.81-1.org it states, "At this point, any information that the media, groups or individuals may say they have acquired as part of the I-81 Corridor Improvement Study is unofficial and not valid. Opinions should not be formed on incomplete, preliminary information. Release and/or use of such information is unauthorized by the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration and is not reliable for reporting or decision-making purposes. The impression this conveys to me is the "powers that be" don't want any public discussion of this topic and that which does occur is to be discarded as irrelevant.

However, there is still public opposition to the "possible" widening of Route I-81 and there are many interrelated concerns. According to VDOT researchers in a couple of years, Route I-81 will have an increasing depletion of commercial truck vehicle parking spaces. I discovered the deficiency is about 309 spaces but if no new parking spaces are provided, the number will increase to about 1,193 in 2010 and to 1,463 in 2020.

Furthermore, I learned approximately 90% of the parking spaces are provided at private truck stops and truck drivers must use the private truck stops for long stops because of the 2-hour parking limit at the rest areas.

Bizarrely the researchers don't recommend at all shifting truck born freight to rail. This was the purpose of the SJ 55 Study sponsored by Senator John S. Edwards. The study requests the Secretary of Transportation to expand the scope of her study on the desirability and feasibility of establishing additional intermodal transfer facilities, pursuant to House Joint Resolution 704 (1999), to include the potential for shifting Virginia's highway traffic to railroads. This is already done in some places including in Virginia with Southern Norfolk but on a limited basis. Apparently the ball never bounced and current Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer has left it still.

There has been official lip service to concomitant intermodal transfer of truck freight to rail but this appears more than anything to be an effort to falsely placate those who have concerns about a possible widening of Route I-81.

Virginia Senator John Edwards has summed up some of the difficulties of transferring of truck freight to rail. He has stated, "Furthermore, a rail component could be achieved years sooner and would be less costly than widening the highway and would be more environmentally sound. For these reasons, the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation directed the competing plans for widening I-81 to include a rail component as part of any proposal."

As Senator Edwards mentions there are over a dozen rail projects being promoted but none of these projects can achieve much success unless substantial capital is invested in upgrading and improving the rail lines and the capital cost of upgrading existing lines of new lines is prohibitive for the railroads on their own. I agree with Senator Edwards it would be more environmentally sound but I think he has missed the bigger picture. He may have been running damage control knowing his proposals couldn't go anywhere. At least it looks that way.

One of the crucial things I learned from VDOT project coordinator for I-81 Fred Atwizer was the possibility of widening Route I-81 was that in terms of shifting truck freight to rail Virginia can't handle it all alone. Route I-81 traverses through several states and even if Virginia did improve and create new rail lines for truck freight that would leave other states which Route I-81 travels through largely unsupported by truck freight.

At a time when the rails have federally nationally been hit hard there is a desperate need for substantial federal capital for a national infrastructure for improved and creating new rail lines, replacing at-grade (ground level) crossings such as underpasses, overpasses, rail trenches, relocation of tracks and roads so they do not intersect. One of the benefits to this would be the ability to nationally, not just in Virginia, create more intermodal stations where increasing truck freight can be transferred to rail.

According to the American Association of Highway and Transportation Officials (AAHTO) Under the Bush Administration's new proposal, highway contract authority would rise from $36.6 billion in FY 2006 to $46.6 billion in FY 2009. AASHTO's reauthorization recommendations called for highway funding to increase to at least $45 billion by 2009. For FY 2006, the federal highway program would receive an increase in funding of $966 million over FY 2005, with a funding level of $34.7 billion.

In contrast, AAHTO states, "Particularly hard-hit by proposed cuts is federal funding for commuter and passenger rail. Amtrak, which was funded in FY 2005 at $1.2 billion, would be zeroed out in the administration's budget. I learned the latter has subsequently changed but not how much they will receive. Only $360 million in federal funding is proposed, to maintain existing commuter services and freight traffic along the Northeast Corridor and elsewhere. The funding levels reflect broad reforms being sought by the Bush Administration, which would split the rail service into long-distance service and the Northeast Corridor.

The administration proposes that a compact of states assume the role of managing the infrastructure and train operations in the Northeast, and that individual states and compacts assume responsibilities for the long-distance operations as well, with some federal matching grants. If those reforms are made, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta said that the administration would support additional funds for intercity rail.

It seems Mineta threw out this bread crumb of additional funding of intercity rail (no figure given) so that these reforms for continued privatization and state responsibility for managing the infrastructure and train operations in the Northeast, and that individual states and compacts assume responsibilities for the long-distance operations as well, with some limited federal matching would be secured.

But I don't consider this reforms but merely more deregulation at a time when the railroad system needs to be unprivatized. The road to deregulation started notably with the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 and culminating in the Interstate Commerce Termination Act of 1995, railroads were given more freedom to abandon unprofitable lines and concentrate traffic on a limited number of high density routes. The freight train industry doesn't want the federal government's help and that is part of the problem,

According to John F. Fritelli who is a Specialist in Transportation Reources, Science, and Industry Division who wrote in the Congressional Research Service Report "Intermodal Ral Freight: A Role for Federal Funding" Federal support for freight rail raises difficult issues because the freight operate differently than other modes. An important difference is that, unlike highways, waterways, and airways, which all use public infrastructure, rail track is privately owned. This raises the difficult question of whether public funding should be used to support projects in private
ownership and under private control."

Personally, it doesn't present any difficult questions for me at all since what is in the interests of the common good takes precedence over private business interests.

As Fritelli pointed out, "The public sector generally operates under a longer term planning horizon and is motivated by broadly defined needs. Railroads, on the other hand, are driven by specific customer needs and requirte faster return on investments."
It is outrageous the federal government has spent approximately $36.6 billion on highways while only $360 million was spent on maintaining existing commuter services and freight traffic. But then again it is clear the Bush Administration is interested in building and expanding many more highways rather than improving and creating new rail lines to support commuters and intermodal transfer of truck freight to rail. The railroads need to be partially unprivatized, (some type of public-private partnership). There needs to be a "national" plan for improving and creating new rail for truck freight, and finally the allocation of part of the federal budget to accomplish this within an approximate time frame.

The Highway Trust Fund (HTF) could be used for partially this purpose. There could also be a federal railway trust fund. Congress has yet to seriously consider or devise a scheme for modal equity. All have potential problems but with any solution(s) there are going to be problems. That's life. The goal is to minimize them.

Mr. Atwizer has informed me to the best of his knowledge there is nothing which earmarks Route I-81 in the pending federal transportation bill, let alone creating a national infrastructure bill for rail which can handle truck freight. The latter goes without saying.

It's possible other states could collaborate with other states in improving and creating new rail for intermodal truck freight to rail but states are very independent and have limited budgets. No, this is just not a state problem and issue but a federal one as well.

The steps to the possible widening and reconstruction of Route 81 has already occurred as SJ 251 Study sponsored by Virginia Senator Emmet W. Hanger proposed Interstate Route 81 reconstruction and widening. The study establishes a 15-member advisory commission to serve as an institutional link between the Department of Transportation and affected communities, businesses, and citizens during any reconstruction and widening of Interstate Route 81. The panel is to report to the Governor and the 2001 Session of the General Assembly. This was approximately four years ago and the major plan still seems to still be the reconstruction and widening of Route I-81 in terms of looking at the 323 mile road which goes through Virginia.

I learned a study conducted by the Trucking Research Institute in 1996 concluded that I-81 was one of the top 10 interstate highways with serious truck parking shortfalls. The current average annual daily traffic on this route is 150,000, and up to 40% of the vehicles in the traffic stream are trucks. Crash data show that approximately 35% of fatal crashes on I-81 involve a truck.

So based on this data it is understandable why the Commonwealth of Virginia would want to do something to try to relieve this traffic volume and make it smoother running into interchanges. The question is whether the possible widening of Route 81 into several more lanes is the appropriate solution.
Besides possibly creating many more lanes and freight truck and car tolls, researchers for VDOT propose a new method and recommend building more numerous public truck stops.

However, if Route 81 is already overloaded with truck volume traffic widening it will only increase more truck traffic and I don't see how building more public truck stops will compensate for the current deadly and unproductive situation. In the 1990's, truck traffic increased by 37% and is expected to increase by more than one-third by 2010.

Again, development feeds upon itself. And as there is more commercial/retail development along Route I-81 and elsewhere this will increase diametrically the level of truck freight on the new lanes.
Why hasn't the Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer and Virginia executive branch expanded their scope of the study on the desirability and feasibility of establishing additional intermodal transfer facilities, pursuant to House Joint Resolution 704 (1999), to include the potential for shifting Virginia's highway traffic to railroads? Have they approached different effected states with any proposals or put pressure on the federal government? Must states continue to be lackey's and suffer for the omissions of our federal government?

There is a lot of behind the scenes politics going on here and Virginians deserve forthright answers and not a whitewash. The website www.I-81.org does provide factual and valuable information but it is devoid of the political complexities of this possible project. In the long run which politicians often have a terminal aversion to, switching more to intermodal transfer of truck freight to rail would more than pay for itself and prevent less volume traffic, encroaching land development, less pollution, and deaths on Route 81, preserve land as well as a more pleasant experience for truck drivers and non-commercial drivers as well.

There are, however, some qualifiers with a federal role in intermodal rail freight. It is currently best suited for long-haul trucks. Intermodal rail almost always relies on trucks for the pickup and delivery portion of the haul. This truck move frequently occurs in urban areas where the problem of congestion is most acute. As a result, intermodal rail's contribution to congestion relief is probably most applicable to reducing the number of long-haul trucks on the interstates connecting cities, rather than reducing the number of short-haul trucks on urban streets and circumferential highways.

However, Fritelli states, "Short hauls generate the most amount of truck traffic. However, intermodal rail generally is not competitive with trucks for hauls less than about 500 miles." Yes, but that is given current conditions. With federal funding this could change.Fritelli concedes the market potential for for short-haul is large. As Fritelli states, "One of the difficulties for the railroads in capturing this market is that the highway system has disbursed manufacturing and distribution centers.

All of this is stark proof the U.S. does not have an adequately integrated transportation system for the 21st century and that major systemic reforms are necessary both from private industry, the state governments and federal government and society at large.

Another issue the conflict between the Teamsters and the American Trucking Association and the idea of creating more intermodal truck freight transfer to rail. I know the trucking industry makes the majority of its bread and butter off the highway and I know the American Trucking Association is opposed to the idea of intermodal transfer of truck freight to rail. I would assume the Teamsters are as well. So we have at least two very big special interests who are opposed to the transfer of truck freight to rail.

However, with proven national federal funding and state dedicated funding streams for improving and creating new rail lines several intermodal truck freight to rail transfer in conjuction with private rail industry and other transportation modes, the widening of Route I-81 could be transfered to rail beyond Virginia to the national level and the net effect would be less truck volume traffic on Route I-81 and elsewhere, less aggressive dangerous driving, and less truck involved fatalities. It would also put less stress on citizens, businesses, the environment, etc. effected by such a current proposed widening of RouteI-81 and other national arteries.

It would also to a large extent ultimately minimize the plans of VDOT to possibly build many more public rest stop stations and parking spaces. Clearly, more are needed now but if the widening and reconstruction of Route I-81 takes place without state and substantial federal funding for improved and new rail lines and several intermodal truck freight to rail transfer than this will likely exacerbate the problem of continued shortage of public truck stop parking spaces and rest areas.

It's time for our state and federally elected and appointed officials to wake up. But they will only slightly stir from their silence if enough citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia and in other states contact them and voice their complaints and various organizations make it part of their agenda.
Much of the truck freight on major highways represents a dangerous modern day version of the Pony Express. Just as other alternatives made the Pony Express obsolete, there are alternatives to significantly eliminate truck freight from the highways but it will cost a lot of money, going against deep entrenched interests and rocking the federal and state boats as well as requiring enormous planning and engineering and taking a long time.

Route I-81 is not a "Virginia problem" but a national/international problem with other clogged arteries of truck freight on highways. If you care about your children and their children and don't want to see much of the natural American landscape disappear amidst a frenzy of development, rubbernecking in traffic, more pollutants in the atmosphere and increased psychological agitation of the American people, then contact your state and federal representatives and urge them that substantial national funding is necessary for improved and new national rail lines to handle transfer of truck freight to rail.

Admittedly, it would be a bold step for the rail industry and in all likelihood it would consider it not favorable to its political or financial interests. As far as I can see the trucking industry has more power and clout than the rail freight industry. It's very complicated and corrupt. The International Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers is a Teamsters division and the Teamsters certainly don't want a substantial amount of truck freight on the highway being planned to be transferred to rail. In addition, The American Railroad Administration cut a deal with the American Trucking Association regarding the Feds reauthorization transportation bill.

It would require going up against the unholy trinity or single compartmentalized entity which is the trucking industry, organized crime, and the federal government. Organized crime is involved in the rail industry as well but pales in comparison to the trucking industry. Personally, I think national plans of intermodal transfer of truck freight to rails is way way long overdue. I think at least some of the American people need to listen to lengthy hearings on the subject on C-SPAN.

If things continue along the "status quo" this country will increasingly reap a bitter and bloody harvest.

Michael Ragland
The Paneled Apartment