The need for infrastructure to move future freight

This look at the future of moving freight in the United States suggests there is work to be done in developing the necessary infrastructure:

The scale of the infrastructure that moves our stuff is staggering, yet we hardly notice it beyond appreciating how fast a book has arrived or growing agitated with double-parked delivery trucks. But the ships, trains, trucks, ports, rails, roads, and support structure that facilitates the metabolism of our society will soon be more visible. The Census Bureau estimates a nearly 20 percent population increase by 2040—that’s one new person every 12 seconds who needs and wants stuff…

As ships bring bigger swells of goods and ask for quicker turnaround times, the ports are focusing on how to get those goods off the ship and on the roads or rails faster. So while ships are maximizing economies, ports are focusing on efficiency. “We are using less to move more,” said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, echoing the company tagline (“we use less to move more”). The authority recently converted as much equipment as possible from diesel to electric, including cranes that generate 30 percent of their own power from gravity, and efficient rack systems for growing numbers of “reefers,” or refrigerated containers…

The DOT estimates an 88 percent increase in rail freight demand by 2035, and Forbes recently predicted that rail will become the most important logistics system of the 21st Century. The reliability and efficiency of rail is already eating into trucking’s market share, as trains are increasingly used for hauls as short as 500 miles, formerly only the domain of trucks. But increasing capacity of the country’s 140,000-mile rail network and its upkeep will require huge capital expenditure, estimated by the Federal Railroad Administration to reach $149 billion over the next 20 years…

The Federal Highway Administration has some numbers to consider: In 2011, approximately 11 million trucks moved 16.1 billion tons of freight worth $14.9 trillion. This level of activity caused recurring peak-period congestion on 10 percent of the National Highway System. Now consider that commercial vehicles currently account for only 9 percent of all vehicle highway miles traveled. Think rush hour is bad now? The FHA estimates that in the next 30 years, there will be 60 percent more trucks, translating to significant slowing on 28,000 miles of the NHS during peak hours, and stop-and-go conditions on an additional 46,000 miles.

There may be a lot of interest in driverless cars but it just be “old” technologies like ships and railroads that keep the flow of goods moving as well as large trucks. When you think about, the whole system is quite amazing: transporting enough goods for 300+ million people requires a lot of coordination and energy.

It will be interesting to see who pays for these upgraded structures; improving ports, for example, could be economic boosts but they are not usually sexy projects and there are plenty of more immediate quality-of-life issues that get more attention (education, health care, etc.) Would consumers complain if the cost of their relatively cheap goods went up to pay for some of these improvements?

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