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Intermodal rail: the long-term solution

The Journal of Commerce

Container dwell time is a growing challenge to the efficient operation of the marine terminal. It is a major deterrent to the ability to improve supply-chain velocity. Studies have found that the average container dwell time ranges from five to eight days. Forecast increases in vessel size will add to the long-term impact of failure to improve container dwell time.

Most U.S. ports are in heavily populated urban areas. Available land adjacent to deep water is scarce. Terminal expansion is expensive and time-consuming. Port area residents feel that they carry unfair environmental burdens, especially increased road congestion and reduced air quality. They push back when ports want to expand operations in their "back yard."

Truck appointment systems at terminals, extended gate hours, chassis pools and the West Coast's PierPass penalty fees are short-term improvements. Acute shortages of drayage drivers are predicted as a result of new federal security regulations that include immigration, criminal and terrorism background checks for credentials. Increased fuel costs add to these challenges, seriously impacting the use of truck for both short- and long-haul movement of marine containers.

The long-term solution is rapid rail transfer of freight containers to and from remote inland intermodal rail transfer yards. Space-consuming reconsolidation and distribution activities can be performed at lower-cost locations close to newly established distribution centers and cross-docking facilities. This can create business areas that will be new sources of employment and tax revenue. The same marine terminal advantages accrue to the staging of loaded or empty export containers at the off-terminal location.

The challenge is how to manage and fund these new "regional systems." The current Department of Transportation management is strongly on the side of selling existing highways and using tolls to repay long-term investment. There has been strong local objection to this principle where it has been applied to our current highway infrastructure. The proposed systems using rail transfer and remote terminals have the advantage of being "new." Additionally, ports are generally viewed as good, long-term investments, with fairly steady volumes and existing waterside infrastructure.

No one solution will fit all regions, but the following attributes should be a catalyst either to using an existing organization such as Southern California's Alameda Corridor, or creating a new one that will bring local partners together and obtain the required innovative financing. The proposed solution is not only "new" but should quickly gain public support by reducing congestion and environmental pollution while being an efficient means of transportation for marine freight. Public-private partnerships are in vogue and allow joint relationships to be established with the local port authorities, state governments and the private sector. Local public funding will be hard if not impossible to obtain in the current financial environment - state bonding action will take time and lots of debate.

The proposed projects should be eligible for federal credit through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. TIFIA approval should not take as long since the proposed systems are innovative, use state-of-the-art technologies, and meet local, state and national goals. The projects certainly meet the goal of being important for improving the efficiency of port operations, contributing to the local economy, improving the environment and meeting the needs of U.S. consumers.

We do not have a national freight transportation plan. Recent commissions and mode-advocacy groups have supported the need for such a plan, but the DOT has taken the position that no new federal funds are available for infrastructure investment. This means that regional solutions are going to be the only way to create urgently needed improvements in port efficiency and the transportation of marine freight.

Hopefully, the current DOT position will spawn new regional organizations that will take the initiative to: provide operational oversight and establish creative funding sources; use rail to rapidly move containers from the marine terminals to remote intermodal railyards; and adopt rail as the most efficient and environmentally responsive way to move marine freight to its final inland destination.

It is a win-win solution - increasing the efficiency of the nation's marine terminals and ports, reducing local area congestion and environmental pollution, and developing a more efficient means to transport marine freight to its destination.