The freight rail industry has a unique opportunity to address and overcome the systemic challenges that keep our immense contributions out of the spotlight and stifle significant capital investment waiting on the sidelines. Click to watch the video and read the transcript of Michael Sussman’s powerful address at Railway Interchange 2019.
by Lex Frazier
A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists has confirmed a fact that is common knowledge to affected neighborhoods: communities of color in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions are disproportionately exposed to air pollution from vehicles. The study, which utilized EPA and Census data, found that communities of color in those regions experience, on average, 66 percent more air pollution from cars, trucks, and buses than white communities.
When the researchers separated their sample by race, they determined that the average Latino resident experienced 75 percent more air pollution than the average white resident, while the average Asian American resident experienced 73 percent more and the average African American resident experienced 61 percent more. Additionally, 85 percent of people who live in the least vehicle-polluted areas are white.
This disparity is especially problematic because of its health implications. The type of pollution highlighted in this report, particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers, has been linked to heart and lung disease, among other illnesses. It is responsible for most of the three to four million deaths that occur worldwide as a result of air pollution.
How did such a catastrophe happen? It comes from decades of policy at all government levels that placed highways in communities of color while refusing to provide them with public transportation. While we may not be able to remove the massive amount of infrastructure that is causing this problem, we must try to mitigate air pollution in other ways and encourage better policy for the future.
One of the report’s key suggestions was that “regional, state, and local governments must target actions to reduce emissions in overburdened communities.” We at OTNA are advocating one way of accomplishing this goal: making more efficient use of freight transportation methods. If we can be smarter about how we transport goods, we can reduce vehicle air pollution in these affected areas.
To that end, we have started several projects to enable more environmentally conscious freight projects. We are creating the Triple Bottom Line Freight Data Bank to compile the environmental data that will facilitate green planning across the freight industry. We are also providing Triple Bottom Line Freight Benefit Cost Analysis, which will encourage individual infrastructure projects to be more intentional about their environmental impact.
While we cannot make centuries of discrimination disappear overnight, we can and will do our part to lessen the burden of air pollution on these communities for future generations.
Place your hand on a steel rail after a 100-car train has just passed and feel the lack of heat. Friction is low when a hard steel wheel rolls over a hard steel rail. Consequently, the wheels last for hundreds of thousands of miles and the rail lasts for decades. Low friction means that hauling heavy weight and people over rails uses 1/2 to 1/6 the amount of energy while producing fewer emissions than moving comparable weight over roads.
Overusing the wheel under single vehicle cars and trucks on rubber tires over rough concrete and asphalt wastes fuel, pollutes air, and diminishes available space. Apply the simple principles of friction efficiency to the task of moving heavy weight and people over land and we take a major step in the direction of creating a sustainable, resilient society.
Hyperloop transit, autonomous vehicles, and flying hotel pods are all exciting possibilities. But let’s not allow the spectacle of high-tech to blind us to the positive immediate impact that could be produced by intelligent use of a steel wheel rolling on a steel track.
Our landing page says it all: “Nothing is more important to our future than our use of the wheel.”
When we consider the complex mechanism that is “infrastructure investment,” and ask ourselves the big questions: Are we moving in the right direction? Are we answering the needs of industry and community? Are we truly investing? Or are we just stemming the tide? It then proves worthwhile to shine a light on the process by which such decisions are made.
OTNA Freight Transportation Lifecycle Project is all about shining that light.
One of the tools central to transportation and land-use planning is benefit/cost analysis (BCA). In the coming months we’ll be showcasing the thoughts, papers and works of the people who have watched, studied and applied BCAs themselves. We’ll be bringing together their perspectives and experience to share with their colleagues in the transportation sector.
From where we stand, the BCA needs replacement. We’ve begun gathering the intelligence and expertise it will take to develop an alternative —a logical, comprehensive tool that could drastically affect a positive and unprecedented outcome in the very near future.
But first things first. Realizing that job #1 is to prove to you, along with the transportation brother and sisterhood of our entire continent, that the BCA, as it has traditionally been applied, stands as a major impediment to a transportation system capable of answering the very robust set of 21st century societal needs.
Let’s start here: From A FEDERAL ROLE IN FREIGHT PLANNING AND FINANCE by the RAND Corporation, (Sandra Rosenbloom and Martin Wachs).
Even if they (public sector agencies) hire outside analysts, agency staff may not fully grasp what costs and benefits have been included—and which have been left out. They may not realize how nonmonetary costs have been monetized (or not). In addition, it is not clear that federal agencies reviewing project proposals based on BCAs and related economic analyses currently have the skill to understand the intricacies of these approaches.
That’s just one piece of a set of BCA weakness spotlighted in the monograph. And given that the RAND Corporation is considered by many to be one of the cradles of modern system analysis, it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate source to challenge the use of BCAs from the standpoint of pure logic.
Submitted in 2015, the USDOT’s draft of a National Freight Strategic Plan invited public comment until April of 2016. Eighty-six comments later, the plan appears, here in early 2019, to have disappeared altogether. As a solemn marking of the third anniversary of the project’s last known activity, we’ll revisit OTNA staff’s reading and commentary of the Plan. Were we overly critical? In review, we still don’t think so. Truth be told, it was barely a plan at all — really more of a report.
So you ask: If it fell so short, why not just say “good riddance?” Why bring it up again? Because it was, however flawed, an important beginning… a beginning of a conversation that the transportation sector, and their customers, and their communities… all need and want desperately to have.
Is it possible that U.S. transportation’s governing body is too encumbered for whole-systems planning? It seems to be the case. That’s why — and what — we’re working on here at OTNA. And you’re invited.
Our Analysis of the Draft National Freight Strategic Plan – 2016
The National Freight Strategic Plan (NFSP) aims to serve as an outline of key issues, but its lack of depth and overall passive orientation will not lead to meaningful progress. Increasing pressures from population growth and environmental degradation compel us to think more systemically and powerfully in advancing transportation’s vital role.
For issues as critical as freight transportation, we need to integrate well-meaning government efforts with intelligent private-sector business perspectives to create not just goals and visions, but action plans and commitments. As a matter of fact, if one were to consider a plan as a living document that includes specific measures, baselines, targets, accountabilities, commitments, and action steps, the National Freight Strategic Plan does not qualify as a “Plan”.
What we have come to accept as a “Plan”, including the NFSP, is more of a report on the past, plus trends and projections, and not a plan. In doing so, we abdicate responsibility for transportation system development to the commercial marketplace that is perfectly capable of creating individual projects, but not efficient systems. The entire NFSP relates to the future of goods movement as a pre-determined fate for which citizens must simply pay the economic, environmental, and social costs that the marketplace doesn’t include, because after all, everyone benefits.
This is not a strategy for national power and it is certainly not an approach that will deliver the urgent 21st-century policy goal of economic activity that supports sustainable growth and a higher quality of community life. OnTrackNorthAmerica is providing leadership on the three key developments that are critical to enhancing the NFSP’s contribution to achieving that goal. The first is to identify the full life-cycle costs and benefits of transportation investments at the individual project and systems’ level via OnTrackNorthAmerica’s Lifecycle Project. The second is to transform transportation reports and projections into Transportation Action Plans. The third is to implement a new innovative method for collective multi-stakeholder thinking, planning, and action, called IntelliConference.
So let’s dive into the NFSP to further illuminate the specific elements which need to be augmented or added.
by Michael Sussman
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.
Collaboration Will Take Us Where Competition Can’t
by Michael Sussman
Across the world at any moment, on any given day, billions of people go about their business looking out for each other’s best interests. The world would not work as well as it does if that wasn’t true. Cooperation and thoughtfulness abound, while selfish, antagonistic acts pale in numbers.
“Are people inherently compassionate or self-centered?” has remained an oft-posed question because of the difference in impact between acts of cooperation or love and acts of aggression or thoughtlessness.
Hug someone today and the feeling of love can fade by tomorrow. You almost have to hug them over and over again, and we do. Shoot or knife someone, drive drunk and crash, or meanly criticize another person and the memory and consequence can last a lifetime. It is this severe and often lasting impact of violence and negativity that muddles our appreciation for the overwhelming amount of cooperation and consideration all around us.
So why did we orient the modern world’s commerce and governance on competition and mistrust, rather than cooperation and trust? What would have us think that we must pit individuals, companies, organizations, political parties, and countries in an endless competition for success?
By Michael Sussman
”Preserving competition in the marketplace,” by itself, is an incomplete regulatory principle that must be augmented with thoughtful collaboration if we are to produce an optimal, sustainable transportation system. When we saw the need for paving muddy roads to and from the railroads in the early 20th century, we missed the opportunity to thoughtfully integrate the newly developing freight highway system with the highly developed rail system. The resulting competition in commerce and public policy triggered a disastrous long-term shrinkage of the geographic footprint of the rail network leading to a suboptimal transportation system.
Coordinating across industries, companies, agencies, and indeed political parties requires respect, collaboration, and consensus-based decision-making processes. Our governing system, however, is structured to manage competing “factions” instead. Competition in the marketplace, competition for government attention, and competitive debate, rather than thoughtful deliberation, have stifled our collective ability to address the thornier issues of our day.
By Michael Sussman
In July, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Executive Order B-32-15 directing numerous state agencies to collaborate on and develop an “integrated action plan” by July 2016 that establishes clear targets to improve freight efficiency, transition to zero-emission technologies, and increase the competitiveness of California’s freight system. Caltrans and other state agencies have already solicited comments and are now fully engaged in the development of the action plan. OnTrackNorthAmerica’s intention is that the action plan implement strategies that better deploy freight rail’s economic and environmental benefits.
OnTrackNorthAmerica (OTNA) has been working throughout 2015 to contribute its expertise in freight transportation land use planning to the state’s progress. In light of the significant projected increases in the state’s freight traffic over the next 25 years, California must focus on the optimal integration of freight transportation and land use. Lower emission truck and locomotive engines alone will not be enough. Conserving highway capacity and road maintenance expenses requires an optimal modal balance between truck and rail modes.
Written by Michael Sussman, OnTrackNorthAmerica President and Founder
North America has yet to achieve the full extent of railroads’ potential contribution to the economy, environment, and land use. In spite of the good work of railroad developers, investors and staff, as well as significant public sector support, railroads remain underutilized for moving goods and people.
Our freight rail system is already so robust that it is easy to miss the possibility of a continental surge in capacity and reach. But railroads are energy-, capital-, and space-efficient, and these benefits are key to our future. It is time to get working on the rail system that a growing, modern society ultimately needs to be successful and sustainable.