The University of Tennessee, Knoxville


TTAP Newsletter: RoadTalk

From the Director

by Dave Clarke, P.E.

Spring has sprung—at least till today. After a beautiful weekend, the weather prognosticators are calling for a hard freeze tonight. Arrggghh! There go our beautiful flowers, which are just now peaking. Oh, well, if you don’t like the weather in Tennessee, just wait a few hours and it’ll change.

With my traditional weather introduction out of the way, I’ll jump into my chosen quarterly topic–freight transportation. I’ve been fortunate to be involved for the past year with the Tennessee Freight Advisory Committee. This group, assembled by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, consists of representatives of government, industry, freight transportation providers, and academia having a common interest in improving freight transportation in Tennessee.

Why is freight important? Well, there are many reasons. First and foremost, almost everything we consume, wear, use, sell, or produce touches the freight transportation system. Without efficient freight transportation, our economy, and, therefore, our standard of living, would be severely affected. Second, freight transportation uses a significant portion of our transportation capacity. This is particularly important for our public highway infrastructure. The impacts of freight on our highways must be measured and addressed. Finally, in today’s global economy, freight providers are linked into a worldwide network. The shirt I buy may travel to the store shelf via ocean vessel, railroad, and truck in its journey from the manufacturer. Problems with transportation infrastructure in faraway places affect us here in Tennessee, presenting problems for the traditional state focused transportation planning and development process.

Trucks are an important part of freight transportation, and many good people make their living in the trucking industry. However, it is well known that heavy trucks affect highway infrastructure to a much greater degree than automobiles. Whether these trucks pay taxes in proportion to their impact is an issue of great debate, and I won’t get into that. However, there is a push underway to raise truck size and weight limits on federal highways. Naturally, there is concern about the impact of these trucks on our local roads and bridges.

Our so called “shortline” railroads offer an alternative way to reach some shippers. Railroads and truckers used to be bitter rivals, but today the trucking industry is the largest overall customer of the railroads. The partnership of these two modes offers advantages to both. By reducing truck traffic, railroads actually reduce highway congestion and infrastructure impacts. Unfortunately, the shortline railroads face an uncertain future in Tennessee because of recent court decisions striking down Tennessee’s tax on railroad diesel fuel. Since the 1980s, Tennessee has invested the proceeds of this tax in upgrading shortline infrastructure, much of which was in poor condition and inadequate to handle modern railcar loads. The future of this valuable program is in doubt, though efforts are being made to craft new tax legislation that will satisfy the courts. Time will tell if these succeed.

That’s it for now. As always, if we can help, please don’t hesitate to call or email. TTAP looks forward to assisting you. Be safe!