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May 17, 201205:58 AMTransportation Matters

with Debby Jackson

But how will my wife get her shoes?

But how will my wife get her shoes?

These days it seems like we can argue over just about anything. The only thing that everyone seems to agree on is that we need more jobs. Start talking about how we accomplish that, however, and all hell breaks loose.

Some arguments are to be expected. Markets and the economy are tricky things, with very smart people holding many disparate opinions about what actions stimulate or retard growth.

Some arguments, however, can make your head hurt. In a recent Capital Times editorial, Dave Zweifel, editor emeritus, lights into Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Mark Gottlieb following a press conference heralding the proposed expansion of I-39/90 to six lanes from the Illinois line to Madison. (Note: The two additional lanes are proposed as part of the reconstruction that has to occur anyway.)

Mr. Zweifel writes, “The secretary reported that of the huge amounts of traffic on the current four-lane interstate, some 30 percent consists of big trucks. In other words, once again taxpayers are going to spend hundreds of millions on building roads capable of enduring (at least for a few years) the relentless beating from trucks that weigh 40 tons when fully loaded.”

Really? We want fewer trucks moving fewer goods in Wisconsin?

Mind you, this is a much different argument than saying that we should carpool more or take better advantage of mass-transit options. I could understand and agree with that argument. But he is actually advocating making it harder for Wisconsin farmers and Wisconsin manufacturers to get their goods to market.

There are three basic drivers of freight movement in Wisconsin: 1) the need to get the bulk materials or inputs necessary to produce things here, 2) the need to move the materials and products that we in fact produce here and, 3) our desire to receive the items we want to consume.

At a press conference to promote a constitutional amendment protecting Wisconsin’s transportation fund, a representative of the Wisconsin Grocers Association was asked why he was participating. His answer was “because groceries don’t arrive at the store on magic carpets.”

When my doorbell rings and a guy in a brown uniform drops off yet another box from Zappos.com – the magical online shoe fairy – on my doorstep, he gets back into a truck. (By the way, the wonderful people at Zappos periodically do call to make sure my wife is doing okay if they haven’t heard from her for several days. But that is another story …)

Moving freight as cheaply as possible should be a slam-dunk – especially in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is a manufacturing and agricultural state. These two sectors of the economy rely heavily on freight services. In those instances where we don’t grow or manufacture the goods cheaper than others, the final price can be competitive if we move it cheaper.

Even during times of political turmoil in this nation, transportation was always one area that remained outside the fray. President Kennedy didn’t chide Eisenhower for his investment in the interstate system. Instead he famously stated, “It is not the wealth of a nation that builds roads, but the roads that build the wealth of a nation.”

Apparently, we can now refer to the ’60s as the decade of consensus.

Now, if Mr. Zweifel wants to argue about how we balance the movement of freight between roads and rail and our ports, that would be a welcome discussion. If he would like to see more freight move via train, for example, I would suggest he put his energy behind an initiative to unsnarl the freight rail bottleneck to our south.

Unlike the recent movie in which a half-mile freight train starred alongside Denzel Washington, trains entering Chicago are indeed stoppable. The truth is a quarter of all rail traffic in the nation touches Chicago. About half of all intermodal freight (the boxes that can be put on trucks or ships) goes through Chicago. But when freight trains get to Chicago, they don’t get through Chicago … at least not very fast.

A recent New York Times article titled “Freight Train Late? Blame Chicago” notes that “shippers complain that a load of freight can make its way from Los Angeles to Chicago in 48 hours, then take 30 hours to travel across the city.”

A program called CREATE (Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program) was implemented to untangle this web. The plan includes greater coordination among the Class I railroads as well as replacing 25 rail intersections with overpasses and underpasses and separating tracks now shared by freight and passenger trains at critical junctures. Fourteen of the 70 projects have been completed and the situation is beginning to improve a bit.

Apparently, advocating for improvements to our rail infrastructure or our waterways isn’t nearly as fulfilling as carping against big, heavy, mean trucks. Remember, one-third of the vehicles on that stretch of interstate today are big trucks. Freight is projected to increase by 80% in the next 20 years. How safe are you going to feel in your compact car if you are still sharing two lanes?

But wait, if Mr. Zweifel has his way, maybe freight will increase by 80% in the other 49 states but not in Wisconsin. Ah, a chance to dream.

It is hard to see how we are going to come to grips with truly complicated and difficult issues like Medicare, Social Security, and education reform when we can no longer agree on whether we want more commerce or not.

Craig Thompson and Ernie Perry (of the National Center for Freight & Infrastructure Research & Education, based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) recently spoke with Joan Gillman on the Let’s Talk Business radio show. To hear the interview (May 16, 2012) about freight and other hot transportation topics with a direct impact on our state’s and our region’s economy, click here

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About This Blog

 Debby Jackson assumed the role of executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin after more than 15 years with the organization. In addition to her vast experience in association management and transportation advocacy, Jackson has a background in business. She leverages the breadth and depth of her professional experience, along with her knowledge of the membership and mission of TDA, to be a strong voice for robust transportation infrastructure in Wisconsin. Jackson started her career as a staff auditor with Price Waterhouse, which led to a series of accounting and corporate management positions with a major national retailer.

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