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On the global road: California's Central Valley must upgrade transportation lines to embrace world market

By Jock O'Connell

This article appeared in the Sunday Forum section of the Sacramento Bee on April 17, 2005.

The business of transportation logistics is an arcane field, and most of us are content to leave the heavy-lifting and document-handling to someone else - so long as the delivery arrives on schedule.

But in a just-in-time economy featuring supply chains that are often global in scope, the efficient movement of goods has become an essential requirement of modern commerce. Manufacturers and retailers now expect to operate with almost no inventory, a practice that imposes a tremendous strain on both the goods movement industry and the nation's transportation infrastructure.

Not surprisingly, regions boasting transportation networks that facilitate the movement of goods enjoy a decided competitive advantage in attracting - not to mention retaining - successful companies with national or even international markets. Regions whose transportation systems are overwhelmed by the flow of goods tend to suffer some predictable consequences.

Last year, the neighboring Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were staggered by a surge of imported goods from the Far East. The volume led to serious delays and occasional diversions of cargo at the ports and eventually along the complex web of highways and railroads linking the Southern California ports to markets throughout the country.

Last year's shipping crisis, likely to be repeated this year, sounded an alert. As a nation, we have allowed our transportation infrastructure to deteriorate to the point where its parlous state has begun to exact some very tangible economic costs.

Given the importance of the goods movement industry, one would assume that the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, this region's principal transportation planning agency, is working assiduously to ensure that the transportation infrastructure here won't collapse under the weight of some fairly hefty increases in the volume of goods on roads and rail in the next couple of decades.

Anyone with such expectations of civic foresight would be disappointed. Far from attaching a top priority to the impending goods movement challenge, SACOG has lately been preoccupied with its Blueprint project. The widely heralded but politically dubious venture addresses land-use planning - an area of policy customarily the turf of local elected officials and the real estate developers who chiefly finance their political aspirations.

Blueprint sought to establish a regional consensus by persuading impressive numbers of earnest area residents to reach the astonishing conclusion that smart growth is generally preferable to, well, dumb growth (i.e., the way we've always done things).

No less remarkable was the enthusiasm with which the region's political leadership trumpeted that conclusion as though the community had experienced some divinely inspired intellectual epiphany.

Nevermind that this endorsement of smart growth begged the obvious question of how we could have hitherto behaved so stupidly for so long. That puzzler was pretty much answered almost immediately after the last Blueprint project PowerPoint presentation, when most of the same policymakers who had just embraced "smart growth" jettisoned their newly found planning principles in favor of a remarkably opportune real estate development scheme that promised to buy the Kings a new home.

What's the nature of the goods movement challenge the region is likely to face? Independent of anything else, the region's rapid population growth and industrial expansion will generate a huge amount of freight traffic.

How much? According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the nation's transportation systems currently move some 40 tons of freight each year for every man, woman, child and immigrant of questionable documentation in the country. By 2025, the Sacramento region's population is expected to increase by nearly one million. The math is simple.

At the same time, the volume of goods transiting the region will surge. Sacramento is, after all, at the nexus of several major transportation corridors. Interstate 5 is the primary north-south thoroughfare on the West Coast, while Highway 99 provides an even more vital link for Central Valley communities. Interstate 80 is the principal highway tying the Bay Area with all points east of the Sierra.

More or less alongside these highways are parallel rail lines converging on the Union Pacific's rail yard in Roseville, the largest such facility west of the Mississippi. In addition, the region is served by the Port of Sacramento and by two airports - Sacramento International and Mather Field - that should see the introduction of direct or even nonstop service to Europe and Asia within the next few years.

The Port of Oakland will be responsible for a sizeable portion of the increase in goods flowing through the Sacramento region. The flood of imports from the Far East, expected to double or even triple by 2020, is bringing more and larger ships to Oakland. When a massive dredging project is completed in the next couple of years, the Port of Oakland will be able to accommodate freighters bearing upward of 10,000 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) - the standard measure for the steel shipping containers that more familiarly come in 40-foot lengths.

Such ships will place an enormous strain on Northern California's already constrained transportation infrastructure. For example, assuming that offloaded cargo is shipped via rail and trucks on a 50-50 basis, a ship discharging 5,000 TEUs would generate a truck convoy nearly 25 miles long, in addition to at least four double-stacked trains. Currently, trains carry only 20 percent of the containers leaving the Port of Oakland.

From an economic as well as an environmental perspective, moving more cargo by rail is vastly preferable than freight by truck. It is therefore encouraging that Port of Oakland officials are working with both the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroads to divert as much of the port's container traffic as possible onto trains. Heavy-duty diesel trucks are not only major emitters of diesel particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, adding more of them to congested roadways will surely test the nerves of automobile drivers.

But extensive reliance on trucks may prove inescapable. "Freight traffic growth from the Port of Oakland is constrained by the heavy number of passenger trains now operating in the Sacramento-Oakland-San Jose-Stockton commuter corridors," notes John Bromley, Union Pacific's director of public affairs. Absent substantial new investment (the source of which is currently unknown), unpleasant tradeoffs seem inevitable as freight and passenger interests vie for use of tracks.

On the transportation supply side, most of the Sacramento region's highway system was laid out during the 1960s, when the region had far fewer residents and its only major job center was in downtown Sacramento. Built largely in the 1960s with 20 years of spare capacity, the current freeway system sought to link downtown with the suburbs that existed then. The spare capacity disappeared many years ago as the region added new job centers and new suburbs.

Since little new capacity has been added to the system since the 1980s, the region's highway system no longer serves the region's changing needs very well. That much was conceded by a SACOG report last fall which contained a grim prediction as well as an acute diagnosis: "Congestion generally will continue to worsen inside the urban area, because the system has little remaining spare road capacity and the region foresees neither the funding nor community will to increase road capacity."

Given the magnitude of the goods movement challenge to the Sacramento region's transportation system, why isn't more attention devoted to this topic? Bureaucratic inertia and the studied reluctance of civic leaders to address issues that appear to have large price tags attached to them is part of the problem. An ideological disinclination to tackle any issue that implies a larger role for government is another. But an ample share of blame has to go to a business community that itself does not seem to fully appreciate the severity of the challenge facing the region's transportation infrastructure.

The simple fact is the voices demanding more bicycle lanes are louder and more numerous than those pushing a regional goods movement strategy. How else can one interpret the finding of a study commissioned last year by the Port of Sacramento - one of the region's principal transportation assets - that the region's industry is largely "indifferent" to the port's fate? Even those firms that do not use the port should appreciate that goods not moved by water will find their way onto the region's already crowded road and rail systems.

The Sacramento region still has an opportunity to get ahead of a goods movement crisis. But first, it must acknowledge the problem and take a full measure of its dimensions. Only then can transportation planners begin to devise the means to manage the flow of goods more effectively and with minimal adverse consequences for the region's residents and businesses.

As the interested party with the most direct stake in an efficient transportation infrastructure and a healthy goods movement industry, the region's business community needs to take a more active stand. What is ultimately involved here is an issue a great deal more critical to the region's economic competitiveness than tax cuts, lower worker's compensation insurance premiums and a less onerous regulatory burden.

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Jock O'Connell is an international business consultant based in Sacramento. He is the principal author of "The Role of Air Cargo in California's Agricultural Export Trade," based on a study by his consulting firm and the Center for Agricultural Business at California State University, Fresno. For more information, click on Jock O'Connell