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Guest Post: The (Only) Path to a World-Class Transportation System is to Design it Sustainably

Guest Post: The (Only) Path to a World-Class Transportation System is to Design it Sustainably

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Guest post by Michael Sussman, OnTrackNorthAmerica.  This post originally appeared at OnTrackNorthAmerica: Transportation Planning for Sustainability.  For more information or to contact the author, click here.

Building productive transportation systems can only be accomplished by designing them sustainably. We can’t overcome unavoidable limits on clean air, stable climate, and land by just spending more money. Our new imperative must be moving freight while minimizing its impact on the environment, open space, highway capacity, and the overall costs of building and maintaining infrastructure. Given the differential between trucks and trains in the space they require for moving goods, the environmental impact of their relative fuel usage, and the efficiency of steel versus concrete and asphalt, it is critical that we shift into designing systems that optimize use of these two modes.

The market can only support this if business, government, and community cooperate. This can be accomplished by aligning around whole-system lifecycle measures and sustainable investment strategies.

Considering the pressures of increasing population on land use, transportation congestion, and the environment, three significant evolutions must occur: 1) include shorter supply chain options in planning, 2) ship as much as sensible by rail to benefit from its energy and space efficiency, and 3) proactively think and plan for reduced dependence on fossil fuels. Accomplishing these transformations must include win-win approaches that support existing transportation providers through this transition. Our existing truck, rail, water, and pipeline infrastructure is too vital to strand assets.

Even before we bring the full lifecycle costs of transportation into commercial pricing, the environment and communities have gained their say in the marketplace. Climate events are wreaking havoc while concerned communities are mobilizing to delay and halt many transportation projects. The evidence is in. We need to determine not only how much to spend on infrastructure, but where, and for which mode. This smarter investment approach is critical for lowering environmental impacts, leveraging the real contribution of efficient transportation, and regaining community support.

How has the environment influenced the transportation marketplace? In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused over $3 billion in damage to transportation systems. Hurricane Sandy, the east coast storm of 2012, caused the Federal Transit Administration to allocate $10.4 billion for repairs. Just this year, flood damage to Texas transportation and infrastructure is estimated at $3 billion. Climate resilience is becoming a critical element in infrastructure planning.

The world is urgently moving toward reduced fossil fuel use aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of industrial activity. Our investment strategies must align with this inexorable trend or they will fail. Not that making decisions in the best interest of local communities and the world are clear-cut. Strategies often involve trade-offs, but we are well past the stage when we can afford short-term fixes. It may seem like whole systems’ planning is too cumbersome and unwieldy, but thinking big, involving all stakeholders, and asking the right questions is more efficient and delivers a higher return on investment.

Short-term energy and infrastructure developments are often touted as bridges to a more efficient future technology, but once the land and capital has been deployed, the bridge takes too long to build. We can’t just stop using coal, oil, and natural gas, but we need thoughtful dialogues among business, government, and communities to plan a transportation system that supports accelerating reductions in fossil fuel consumption.

Despite their significant power, the era when big companies can proceed unhindered on their own accord has passed. Yet when communities over-exercise their right to obstructionism, the greater good is not served. Villainizing railroads or trucking companies for transporting oil or developing new coal terminals to meet demand neglects their common carrier obligations. We need to evolve our thinking about transportation to align with new supply chain patterns, energy sources and environmental realities. Eventually all interests will converge as we progress toward reduced hydrocarbon consumption.

OnTrackNorthAmerica’s Intelliconferences and Transportation Action Planning provide a new convening space and method for stakeholders seemingly at odds to mold their distinct interests and perspectives into logical, long-range plans. “Coordination and collaboration toward sustainability” is not just a slogan for an engineering school hallway. It describes the only investment path for success in building a world class transportation system in the 21st century.

Sustainable transportation also needs to support increased onshoring, reindustrialization, shorter supply chains, and more local, direct rail service. The world cannot afford, nor can it practically build, the infrastructure to support the unlimited globalization of the supply chain. Two dynamics are converging to make the continued expansion of international freight movement impossible; population growth is highest in the urban regions around port facilities and these ports are located in coastal areas that are most vulnerable to sea-level rise and related climate disruption events. It is not in our long-term interests to peg the future on moving more and more freight through urban port cities where more people are living.

Communities, ever more conscious of environmental challenges, are gaining their power in the marketplace. The saga of the now ten-year battle against BNSF Railway’s planned intermodal facility at the Port of Los Angeles illuminates the need to rethink the overall impact of current global logistics. We must evaluate the full lifecycle costs of transportation and plan investments to make optimal use of all modes and related land. OnTrackNorthAmerica’s National Lifecycle Costs and Benefits Project will gather and augment the good work of others to form this whole-system framework for intelligent transportation investment.

One example of good intentions going awry is the Erie, Pennsylvania intermodal project on which I served as debt-capital advisor. In 2014 the project was brought to an abrupt halt by the activism of the local community. Rather than siting the facility alongside the Class 1 main line in the most populous area of the region, it could have been sited just a few miles away on a branch line. Truck drayage would be more efficient while reducing the neighborhood impact. Of course, having the facility right alongside the mainline is efficient for the Class I rail operation, but we need to expand the focus of transportation investment to include efficient land use, environmental stability, and community life. Applying OTNA’s whole-system planning approach would allow many transportation projects to advance with community support.

When logistics companies, shippers, and public sector agencies align their business activity with the environment and the community, infrastructure investment will become not only sustainable, but also reach its full productivity. Profits in the 21st century will accrue to sustainable design, and we’ll all breathe a little easier as a result.

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