2nd Half 2010
Roanoke Times - Opinion
Build Rails, Not Roads
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Peckman is retired from ITT, a jazz musician at the Greenbrier and a member of RAIL Solution.
The article "Congestion ahead?" (July 4) implied that railroads would not be a component of the solution to congestion on Interstate 81. You followed on July 8 with an editorial: "No Money or vision for Interstate 81." Why are RAIL Solution, so many Virginians and various thoughtful groups across the nation pushing rail? It's the economy, stupid.
Railroads are not only much cheaper to build than roads, but the building process produces much less pollution, uses less land and does not disrupt traffic for decades. But the major savings come from the day-to-day operation. Trains use a fraction of the fuel used by rubber-tire vehicles.
Even if trains stayed with petroleum-powered engines, they produce less health-endangering pollution, and health care is a major big-ticket item. But railroads can easily be electrified and run on the alternative, non-fossil-fuel energy sources that we must develop.
The cost of buying fuel from our enemies is real money. The extreme weather that we already are experiencing from greenhouse gases is costing real money. The gulf oil gusher is costing real money.
We cannot afford to build more highways than we need or to squander the funds we need to build a world-class railroad that is needed to compete in the world marketplace.
The Virginia Department of Transportation was a major source for both pieces published. VDOT historically has had one agenda: Build highways. It tends to build short sections of unapproved roads, hoping to build political pressure for eventual approval. Approved to build one climbing lane for I-81 near Buffalo Creek, it added three -- to fit its plan of four lanes each way plus a climbing lane.
We need VDOT to see into the future to make the best decisions for our economy. Yet gathering the data for I-81, it couldn't even see the present. It used old data when rising petroleum prices didn't fit its projections. VDOT is more invested in building its dream than in building the diverse and multimodal transportation system that we need. VDOT and the underfunded Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation need to be combined and work together to build a modern transportation system.
Another good question is why isn't Norfolk Southern helping drive us toward building a North American steel interstate system? There was national vigor to build Eisenhower's National Interstate Highway System. Why is NS satisfied with operating an antique when the rest of the world has modern railroads and is building more?
Perhaps it's that:
1. Railroads are privately owned and can be taxed. Highways can only be subsidized.
2. Americans love cars. Politicians love to get elected.
3. The public has ignored transportation infrastructure.
4. We have taxed the railroads so heavily that most of the nation's dual tracks have been ripped up because the taxes on the second tracks were more than the profit the railroads could make operating them. Rail beds have room for tracks in both directions, but with only one track, the trains have to take turns. Passenger trains can't pass freight and have been eliminated.
5. The railroads are afraid that we will nationalize their private property.
Perhaps NS will become more ambitious and will play a much larger role in Virginia's transportation system than the Crescent and Heartland corridors they are planning.
We were ready to turn over I-81 to Halliburton; why can't we partner with NS with the railroad that is already theirs? And why can't we work with planners in our neighboring states?
The Virginia General Assembly passed a bill to do a study and determine what would be required to entice 60 percent of the trucks driving straight though Virginia to get off I-81 and put their trucks or their loads onto rail. Then the budget committee amended it to use just NS data, and the study was not done. Somehow, we need to gather data and base these decisions on facts rather than opinions.
We cannot just draw a straight line from the past into the future. We need to stop making transportation decisions based on our infinite wisdom from experience of increasing supplies of petroleum, tolerance of pollution and being unaware of greenhouse gases.
We can't lead with our head in the sand. We do have enough data to know that VDOT's projections are wrong.
Nations other than the U.S. have enough experience to show us that modern railroads are capable of fulfilling many of our needs. To see for yourself what a North American steel interstate would be, visit www.railsolution.org.
Roanoke Times - Letter to the Editor
We don't have money to expand roads
Monday, July 19, 2010
Over the last several weeks many readers have responded to The Roanoke Times' Interstate 81 coverage with the obvious question: Why is there minimal discussion of the most financially practical, least destructive and most sustainable transportation option?
Pulverizing another four traffic lanes through the mountains of Virginia, scarring both the landscape and state budget, is an egregious and economically debilitating option for a cash-strapped state and nation. Expanding I-81 will only place additional -- and exorbitant -- debt on our struggling taxpayers.
We already have a rail corridor in place that can, with a substantially smaller financial investment, handle a majority of the long-haul truck container traffic. Virginia is already lacking the funds to maintain existing roads. We need to focus on rebuilding our current system before any expansion.
Rail solutions to our I-81 traffic problems in Virginia can be easily researched and understood. Readers and The Roanoke Times should consider the rail option further and voice their concerns to our representatives.
Roanoke Times - Opinion
Rail would relieve congestion
Sunday, July 11, 2010
Foster is the executive director for RAIL Solution in Salem.
Jeff Sturgeon's July 4 piece "Congestion ahead?" on Interstate 81 congestion states with unwarranted inevitability that "road widening must happen during the next 25 years to avoid serious traffic headaches."
Neither serious congestion nor the need for major new I-81 widening can be assumed, for a number of reasons.
First, in the I-81 Environmental Impact Statement, future demand levels on I-81 were forecast by simple linear extrapolation of traffic trends over the previous two decades. Thus, there was no consideration of the impact of rapidly rising fuel prices, or of the declining availability of oil or of the chronic driver shortage afflicting over-the-road truckers in recent years. Projecting experience during the past 20 years as an indicator of future use is both naïve and unsound. VDOT's growth targets are likely way too high.
Second, needed capacity could be added on the parallel rail line, and through trucks handled on the railroad. This could remove a big chunk of the most disruptive traffic, actually separating such vehicles from cars altogether, a big safety advantage. It could defer and reduce the need for a massive highway-widening project.
Third, with peak oil upon us, and people commonly citing the need to wean the U.S. economy from oil dependency, it is possible that taxpayers could be duped into funding 25 years of road work only to find no one can acquire or afford the fuel to use it. Investment in rail reduces the risk because railroads can easily be electrified, substituting domestically generated electric power for foreign oil.
Fourth, rail even can solve the oft-cited funding quagmire, because rail improvements can pay for themselves in oil savings. A 1 percent increase in electricity use, easily accomplished through conservation and renewables, can save annually 7 percent of the nation's oil use, when mid- to long-distance trucking is switched to rail. Billions going now to the Middle East would be available to use here at home, generating jobs and economic activity year after year. It is the best kind of economic stimulus plan.
Fifth, in addition to this economic benefit, there are huge environmental benefits to moving freight (and passengers) by rail instead of on highways. Equivalent capacity on rail takes far less land, and rail transportation is more energy efficient, less polluting, produces less greenhouse gases and contributes less to climate change.
The Roanoke Times article also seems to chastise the state of Virginia for lacking the vision to undertake a widening of I-81. Transportation Secretary Connaughton is quoted as saying, "We don't really have a comprehensive vision for the entire corridor." That's something different altogether than lacking the vision to widen the highway. Connaughton talks about earlier plans "to widen I-81 end to end" and rejects that. Instead he favors developing a new strategy and "revised long-term vision" for the corridor. Ideally, that vision will consider trade-offs, both costs and benefits, of adding capacity on the railroad versus on the highway.
Roanoke Times - Opinion
Rail studies must be more thorough
Friday, July 09, 2010
A. L. Lotts
Lotts, of Knoxville, Tenn., is retired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a research engineer and has a bachelor's and master's degrees from Virginia Tech.
I have followed for some time the manner in which Virginia and Tennessee have failed to deal with the problem of truck traffic on Interstate 81, and in Tennessee, the volume of trucks on Interstate 40, which feeds I-81.
These two interstate corridors have perhaps the densest truck traffic in the country. Yet, the national and state studies, such as those of Virginia and Tennessee, continue to produce flawed analyses that mostly extrapolate present usage and growth and neglect full consideration of important factors.
Very little thought is really given to trying to switch the maximum number of trucks to rail in this corridor, and that is unfortunate for the people of Virginia and Tennessee.
Let me give two examples of misleading studies that no doubt have great influence on what policy makers think about the I-81 rail alternatives.
n The National Rail Freight Infrastructure Capacity and Investment Study prepared for Association of American Railroads by Cambridge Systematics Inc. (September 2007) is based on rail corridors selected by the major railroad companies. As far as I can tell, the major corridors are defined as those most used now by freight rail. No consideration was given to changing modes of travel. Accordingly, no major corridor is defined for what I would call the Southern Appalachian corridor represented by I-81 and I-40 in Tennessee.
A disproportionate amount of freight is carried by truck without the use of rail to take some of the burden from the roadways in this corridor. Why is the AAR having reports prepared without proper consideration of alternatives and options?
It is an interesting question because Cambridge Systematics, in a study for a highway research group in 2005, concluded that public investment in rail intermodal infrastructure can produce material relief for highway traffic in the I-81 corridor and that this impact can be made to occur in a practical timeframe.
n Feasibility Plan for Maximum Truck to Rail Diversion in Virginia's I-81 Corridor (draft study of Cambridge Systematics Inc. for VDOT as part of a plan requested by Virginia General Assembly). By admission of its authors, this draft study issued in 2009 did not address a number of ways that additional trucks might be diverted. The study rejects too many opportunities for increasing diversion without adequate justification.
Just as serious is the tendency of the report to reject as infeasible ideas that are more costly based on limited economic analysis, even though costs have not been thoroughly evaluated and certainly not compared with the cost of additional environmental impact and direct cost of additional highways.
The problem with such studies is that they take legs of their own; and, after a while, the studies become representatives of the truth about the feasibility of rail improvements in the I-81 corridor. Unfortunately, although they are biased, the studies do become the basis for policies of the federal government and of states such as Virginia and Tennessee.
No doubt improvements to I-81 are required. But, Virginia and my own state of Tennessee, joining perhaps with other states, need to commission unbiased qualified contractors to conduct studies that will determine once and for all what the feasibility and costs and impacts are for a first-class rail corridor in the region.
I would suggest getting qualified university research people involved at least in reviews of the work of consultants, who often have diverse clients who do not have the same interests in the outcome.
The region is suffering from the general malaise and discouragement that accompanies half-hearted attempts to address this problem. If the region were ready with a good plan, then it could take advantage of opportunities for funding when they come unexpectedly.
For example, why is the federal government preparing to fund two north-south corridors for fast passenger rail in North Carolina and South Carolina? The answer: They have a need and were ready. This region will never be ready when it wastes its resources and time on incomplete studies representing narrow interests.
Roanoke Times - Letter to the Editor
Widening the road may not be the way to go
Friday, July 09, 2010
Re: "Congestion ahead?" July 4 news story:
As one who plans on using Interstate 81 over the next 25 years, I doubt we have used anything but our hindsight on this one. If we are still using gasoline propelled and independent driver units on our interstate in 25 years, then we are just stupid, stupid, stupid.
Population expansion will demand mass transit usage. New technology will mean a system where individual units are controlled by central computers.
Antiques will not be allowed on such rapid highways. Rail loaded with trucks will hop the interstate. Wider roads just mean snarls of highway construction for the next 25 years.
Let's use our heads a bit on this one and think ahead. I know what the highway road construction people want. They are comfortable with the same old thing. We can do better than that.
Roanoke Times - Letter to the Editor
Less pavement, more railways
Friday, July 09, 2010
A recent Roanoke Times article claimed that Interstate 81 must be widened ("Congestion ahead?" July 4). This conclusion is reached without supporting evidence. In fact, the article begins and ends narrowly on the desire of one resident to profit from the sale of her property to the government for the widening -- hardly the basis of good regional planning.
The newspaper should not depend on the opinion of a self-serving resident or the VDOT administrators and large paving companies that decided together that widening is the only answer, in spite of all costs.
Instead, our journalists and leaders should ask the serious questions: How is VDOT planning for the high oil prices that have cost our economy so much, and which will continue to make past approaches -- "Pave, baby, pave" -- simply unaffordable? What about the greater efficiencies of rail (one-tenth the fuel requirement per ton)?
Western states and European countries support the movement of trucks on trains as wiser and cheaper than simply laying more asphalt. Wouldn't that better address the long-distance freight traffic using our interstate? In future reports, please ask transportation planners (and not just those at VDOT) the bigger questions.
Roanoke Times - Letter to the Editor
Rail group can solve congestion
Friday, July 09, 2010
Your July 4 article "Congestion ahead?" contains an omission of the most viable alternative to congested highway projections, that in truth, are driven by Virginia Department of Transportation studies only. Please interview the Rail Solution Group, and at least give them one fair article to discuss the feasible option of rebuilding and eventually expanding the Norfolk Southern railroad line that lies parallel to Interstate 81.
With the advantage of container shipping, railcar junctions to truck ports will result in faster and more costefficient distribution. Rail improvements can save annually 7 percent of the nation's oil use when mid- to long-distance trucking is switched to rail. Billions of U.S. taxpayer revenue going to the Middle East can be kept here to create jobs and economic restoration in the U.S.
VDOT extrapolations do not tabulate the rising cost of oil, and the cost of expanding the roads is extravagant compared to railroad transportation. Again, please exercise fairness in reporting and allow one article to let Rail Solutions tell the rest of the story.
Roanoke Times - Opinion
No money or vision for Interstate 81
Thursday, July 08, 2010
In 25 years, the major transportation route through this region will be a congested mess. Now is the time to plan for and fund a fix.
If you think Interstate 81 is bad now, just wait 25 years. If, as seems distressingly likely, no major effort is made to add capacity to the interstate, every day will be as congested as today's busiest travel day -- the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
That's the discouraging prediction of Virginia Department of Transportation officials, as reported in the latest installment of The Roanoke Times' series Interstate 81: Fear, Facts and the Future.
How bad will it be? Vast swaths of the interstate will have a level of service rated between D and F, which means there will be limited maneuverability in traffic in some places and no useable gaps in traffic in others. Even a minor accident could lead to severe backups.
The problem is twofold. First, as everyone knows, there is no money for transportation improvements.
Gov. Bob McDonnell and Republicans in the General Assembly have consistently refused to even consider a gas-tax increase, though the tax hasn't gone up since 1987.
Inflation has eroded that tax, leaving it with about half the purchasing power it had 23 years ago.
As a result, VDOT has little money for new roads and isn't even able to keep up with routine maintenance of the state's roads.
But even if a lightning bolt of common sense struck and the gas tax were increased, VDOT has no plan under active consideration to add real capacity to I-81.
"We don't really have, I'm going to say, a comprehensive vision for the corridor," Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton admitted to reporter Jeff Sturgeon.
No money. No vision. But the traffic is coming, whether or not the interstate is prepared for it.
The only upgrades in the works are minor things like truck lanes and expanded shoulders. As Fred Altizer, former administrator of VDOT's Salem District, told Sturgeon, though, such improvements don't add capacity to the road. They might make I-81 safer to travel, but they do nothing to actually allow it to handle more traffic.
"An additional capacity lane would be something that would start at Christiansburg and you could stay on it all the way till you got to [Interstate] 581," Altizer said.
There have been big plans for I-81 in recent years, but none have gone anywhere. All the plans fell victim to some combination of funding constraints, environmental concerns or other controversies.
The clock is ticking faster than many may think. Major interstate projects take years to study, plan and construct. In the meantime, traffic volume will continue to grow every year.
I-81 needs money and a plan. The sooner, the better.
Rail could ease truck traffic -- for a price
Sunday, June 06, 2010
Forecasts say Interstate 81 will see more trucks, and state officials want to ease the burden on roads.
While transportation experts agree that a doubling of truck traffic in the next 25 years could gridlock Interstate 81, they disagree over how to meet the challenge.
Some say to invest huge portions of transportation funding into rail enhancements -- that a $6 billion to $7 billion project shared by several I-81 states would unlock rail's massive potential to carry freight up and down the corridor. Such an investment could take more than 30 percent of trucks off the road, a state consultant says.
Virginia, meanwhile, has adopted a more conservative target. Officials here hope to move 14 percent of truck freight onto rail at about one-third of the cost. They say that is in line with available cash from the public and private sectors and technology.
Whatever the route, Virginia faces a price to divert trucks from I-81. It only adds to the list of extensive unmet transportation needs dominated by the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges.
"Our system is crumbling," said Del. Jim Shuler, D-Blacksburg.
Shuler said roads need $1 billion in new money a year for 20 years. Those funds will have to be found before money for rail, he said.
While economic forces can create swings in truck demand on the nation's interstate system -- the North American Free Trade Agreement increased it, for instance, while the recent sour economy lessened it -- truck traffic on I-81 is expected to increase over the long term.
Heavy trucks rumble between Bristol and Winchester, loaded with goods such as food, furniture, automobiles, chemicals and construction materials exceeding 50 million tons a year. Some 60 percent are bound for destinations beyond Virginia.
"Freight movement often creates local problems without local benefits," said a 2008 report from the federal Office of Freight Management and Operations.
"Current volumes of freight are straining the capacity of the transportation system to deliver goods quickly, reliably, and cheaply."
Freight railroading advocates say the obvious solution is a "steel interstate."
Crews would lay double track and electrify the I-81 rail corridor with overhead wires between Knoxville, Tenn., and Harrisburg, Pa. Trains with versatile roll-on, roll-off technology could bring aboard virtually any type of truck and would run at about 70 mph.
Trucks would still be needed to haul goods to rail yards and pick them up. That kind of interplay between trucks and trains is still rare in the U.S. freight industry, representing a couple of percentage points of the more than 20 billion tons of freight moved annually.
But intermodal shipping is gaining momentum.
"We're proposing this corridor as a model for the entire nation," said Rees Shearer, chairman of Rail Solution, a Virginia-based group that advocates a leading role for rail in transportation. It might cost $6 billion or $7 billion to create, Shearer said.
Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge County, said the concept offers the kind of relief from truck traffic that he and others are seeking. A bill of his called for a feasibility study.
The outcome was an April report to state leaders, titled "Feasibility Plan for Maximum Truck to Rail Diversion in Virginia's I-81 Corridor." In it, a consultant examined the idea of a steel interstate-type service and concluded its feasibility was unknown.
Cline said the study was a disappointment and has appealed to Thelma Drake, director of the state's Department of Rail and Public Transportation, to look more closely at the concept.
For now, Norfolk Southern Corp. -- owner of the tracks in the I-81 corridor -- is set to begin limited runs of a new intermodal rail service called the Crescent Corridor in 2012.
It's a similar effort to the Heartland Corridor, which Norfolk Southern is developing to speed freight from the Port of Hampton Roads to the Midwest. The Heartland Corridor is not expected to relieve truck traffic along I-81 and may slightly increase it in areas because of a planned Elliston intermodal yard that Montgomery County officials are battling to the state Supreme Court.
The railroad will market the Crescent Corridor as a rail conduit for loads of freight that must travel a big chunk of the distance between the Southern freight hubs of New Orleans and Memphis, Tenn., and those in New Jersey and New York. This spring, the Obama administration awarded $105 million in stimulus money for new terminals near Memphis and Birmingham, Ala.
Virginia is allocating 37 percent of its Rail Enhancement Fund -- the dedicated pot of money for railroad infrastructure -- to I-81 corridor projects, said Department of Rail and Public Transportation spokeswoman Jennifer Pickett.
Virginia's past, current and proposed future funding for freight railroad projects along I-81 comes to $88.7 million, Pickett said. Norfolk Southern has had to commit about $38 million of its own funds.
The feasibility study found that a train service such as the Crescent Corridor could divert the freight carried aboard 13.5 percent of the trucks on I-81 during its initial years of operation.
"We're trying to pick the lowest-hanging fruit first and we're also trying to pick the most profitable intermodal business first," said Bill Schafer, director of strategic planning at Norfolk Southern.
In rough numbers, that would represent a diversion of 1,300 of 9,300 trucks a day, leaving close to 8,000 -- a number that would still leave I-81 with one of the state's highest percentages of truck traffic.
But, if economic forecasts hold true, the freight tonnage moving in the corridor will increase, too, erasing any gains from moving to rail.
Truck-loaded freight on I-81 is expected to double during the next 25 years to near 20,000 trucks daily, assuming no major disruption in fuel supplies.