Charlie Quimby and Matt Kane: Let's talk transportation -- as in freight, not cars

  • Article by: CHARLIE QUIMBY and MATT KANE
  • Updated: January 8, 2010 - 7:17 PM

This is the issue at the core of economic growth. Four considerations:

People-moving tends to be transportation policy's squeaky wheel, but freight is where the rubber really meets the road for economic growth.

Every day, Minnesotans rely on a freight system that uses roads, rails, water routes and airways to transport consumer goods, mail, parts and equipment, crops, ore and timber to millions of destinations, tying Minnesota's communities to one another and to the larger economies of the region, the nation and the world.

Most of this infrastructure is public stuff, paid for with tax dollars and user fees and managed by our governments. And a growing chorus of experts warns that it's imperative for us to invest more money as smartly as possible to rebuild crumbling systems and keep this economic lifeblood flowing.

Freight has unique infrastructure requirements. Policymakers should focus on developing smart solutions in four key areas.

1Traffic congestion. Especially in the metro region, trucks face significantly higher costs from delays than do commuters, but they also contribute disproportionately to congestion. Reducing congestion helps ensure that these higher costs don't get built into the costs of products produced or consumed here.

2Interregional corridors. Nearly 3,000 miles of IRCs link the Twin Cities, Rochester, St. Cloud, Fargo-Moorhead, Duluth and about 50 other communities. They constitute only 2 percent of Minnesota's roadway miles, but account for almost 30 percent of the state's vehicle miles traveled and carry the majority of its freight traffic. A similar-sized secondary system of roads links in smaller trade centers throughout Minnesota. When the Legislature looks for where to get the most economic bang for its investment in roadways, it must consider these important routes.

3Intermodal freight movement. Minnesota relies more than most states on rail and water for freight shipments because it is a major producer of bulk commodities, including iron ore, grain and other crops. Railways handle about one-third of Minnesota freight shipments measured by weight. This freight often must be transferred between modes. Transfer points may be privately owned but require good access to public roads and waterways. Shippers increasingly move freight in secured containers that can be transferred between modes without the need to unpack and repack, but Minnesota has only limited capacity to handle containerized freight.

4Impact of truck weights. A fully loaded commercial truck creates thousands of times the wear and tear caused by an automobile. Safety is also a concern. Heavy trucks shorten the life span of bridges, while trucks with heavy axle loads damage roads. The resulting maintenance and repair costs have led Minnesota to set truck weight limits. Most neighboring states and all Canadian provinces allow heavier weights, larger combinations of freight trailers or both, putting Minnesota at a competitive disadvantage. Minnesota has changed some truck weight rules recently but has not addressed road and bridge upgrades needed to handle heavier trucks.

Minnesota must address all these challenges. Some improvements don't have to cost the public more, such as allowing more commercial trucks on the high-occupancy toll lanes of Twin Cities expressways or encouraging the shift of freight movement from truck to rail. Other measures will require coordination between levels of government, such as assessing the need to upgrade local roads and bridges that connect freight-generating facilities to IRCs and other major routes. But when it comes to transportation spending that drives the state's economy, Minnesota taxpayers must plan for how we're are going to pay the freight.

Matt Kane is the director of policy and research and Charlie Quimby is a communications fellow at Growth & Justice. The progressive think tank released a freight transportation report in December, the latest installment in the Smart Investments in Transportation for Minnesota project.

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