You can still get from here to there, but you’d best not be in a hurry…
The schedule of what was once one of Amtrak’s most timely trains, the legendary Empire Builder, has become a joke. Last “peak season”, both UPS and FedEx were lucky to get deliveries made by New Years. Midwest states have raised truck weight limits on main roads, only to have trucks forced to haul reduced loads due to deteriorating bridges and secondary roads. After switching much of it’s intermodal freight from Union Pacific to BNSF because UP was too congested, BNSF is now so congested that they’ve dropped much of their expedited service because they couldn’t keep their own schedule. And fly right over this terrestrial transport mess? Sure, if you ever get through the airport, and your luggage should be catch up with you in a day or two. It gets worse… Out here in the rural midwest, we’ve still got grain on the ground from last years harvest, ’cause the elevators are full. And with the drought disappearing, we’ve got another record crop on the way. We’ve looked at those piles of last years corn and more in the fields all summer, and now we’re starting to talk about it in a worried way. The recession is giving way to an economic recovery, but our transportation system hasn’t recovered from decades of disinvestment.
We’ve got GPS and radar and all, how did we get into this nationwide traffic jam? Railroads haul the biggest chunk of our freight, and after overbuilding that drove many to bankruptcy, they’ve been tearing up tracks and pruning their networks since the depression until recently. And while tracks have been improved, almost no new rail routes have been built in nearly a century.
Our roads are even more ragged, with our system of US highways laid out near a century ago with little additions since, save for adding a few lanes. The Interstate System was laid out in the 1930s, finally funded in the 50s, and largely completed in the 60s and 70s… Our population has doubled since then. The routes chosen reflected mail volumes back in the planning stages of the system, and no longer reflect actual needs for highways.
Ain’t moving any better and certainly not faster on the water, with our depression era locks and dams limiting the volume of freight that can be moved by this greenest mode to depression levels. But for a few dredging projects to accommodate new Panamax ships, our harbors are as old and obsolete or older. Pipelines? Good luck getting permits to build anything beyond a small water main. Same with our airports, many of them sited in the original aviation boom of the 1920s and now caged by the urban areas that grew up around them.
So while the rest of the world is building high speed passenger trains and superports with autonomous vehicles that can move 40 ton containers, why are we stuck in traffic jams, sidings, port ques, and overcrowded airports? Let’s look at my home state, Minnesota, where both parties have formed a strange coalition to make sure not much of any new transportation assets get built. How? The republicans don’t want to pay for transportation infrastructure, and especially not passenger rail… Even if they’re largely federally funded and all the state has to cough up is a 20% to 50% match. Yep, we even have a republican governor wannabe, Marty Seifert, who wants to raid the state’s “rainy day fund” to the tune of 150 million dollars to patch the roads. This is the same Marty Seifert who as a state house majority leader asked the republican governor to refuse federal highway funds because he didn’t want to raise gas taxes to raise the 20% state match. Sorry Marty, but our transportation backlog is so big that we’ll need billions not millions to catch up, and are you going to rob the kids or the seniors to “balance” the budget during the next economic downturn? The other half of this coalition for transportation constipation is the urban democrats who think highways are an evil force that allows two million people to escape the barely hundred square miles of the core cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul for the suburbs. Add in global warming and the perceived threat of incineration brought on by those lengthy ten mile commutes to and between suburbs, and this bloc of metro democrats has blindly joined with the republicans to ensure that no more lane miles get built nowhere, with the exception of a ten mile or so light rail line every decade or so.
With our same old highways jammed, shippers increasingly have been hauling their freight straight to the railroad tracks. Thus intermodal freight volume hardly even slumped during the recession, and with the recovery we’re seeing a new intermodal volume record practically every week. ‘Twas great while the railroads had surplus capacity to sell, and it’s been nice to have BNSF and the other railroads to serve as an alternate route… But that alternate route’s getting all jammed up too. In many cases it ain’t the railroad’s fault- BNSF is pouring half their profit, five billion dollars, into upgrading their tracks and trains this year. But as the transportation safety valve for much of the western two thirds of the country, BNSF is still struggling as more and more grain, intermodal freight, and now crude oil too move from congested highways and pipelines to it’s tracks.
As a candidate I’ve been talking to some of the farm groups, and they’re looking for alternate routes for their products too… One even asked if I’d support allowing South Dakota sized 70+ ton double trailer grain rigs in Minnesota. Maybe on 4 lane highways, but we’ve got so many restricted bridges that there can’t be many viable routes. And where are they going to find all these trailers and qualified drivers in the midst of the worsening driver (pay) shortage? From what I’m hearing, the proposed destination for all these convoys of grain are the Great Lakes ports at Duluth and Superior and the Mississippi ports at Red Wing and Winona. Lotta grain that’ll move, with the Soo locks limiting ships to 600 feet… Heck, some of the billionaires yachts are getting that big! Worse yet, the over a dozen Mississippi locks can’t fit more than a few barges of a 15 barge tow at a time.
So where is all this transportation constipation taking us, long term? Look around the world and you’ll find all too many examples of countries with vast resources, human and otherwise, that remain undeveloped and their people impoverished due to lack of functional transportation. Unless we bite the bullet and invest in transportation again, that’s our future… A poorer America where high transportation costs drive up the price of everything and drive good jobs elsewhere.