Tuesday, June 20, 2006


June 20, 2006

I wanted to pass along some observations about the state of transportation in Indiana.

The system in place is suffering from many of the problems of antiquation. Highways are too expensive to build and the life expectancy of our roads and bridges is embarrassingly short. I think everyone agrees that liquid fossil fuel energy sources are becoming increasingly problematic. Congestion continues to worsen. Personal injuries and deaths on the highway are a disgrace. And generally the costs of travel, in terms of dollars spent and loss of productivity are just too high.

I recognize that it is naïve to expect to have major changes of practice in the short term but I also think we have a unique opportunity with the construction of I-69, the first new construction interstate highway in the United States in several decades. I talked to some of the highway researchers at Purdue about this a year ago and they seemed anxious to explore new approaches in a number of concerns.

As you are aware, new technologies are allowing wholesale changes in thinking in a number disciplines. I would like to see the I-69 project become of model of the future in transportation. I think, properly presented, a number of federal grants could be secured to explore new concepts and, at the same time, help defer the cost of the project. With a lot of thought and a little marketing, this could be the highway of the future that would help Indiana make a quantum leap to position the state as the epicenter of economic progress from transportation, distribution and logistics.

There are certainly challenge involved with getting people to change the way they travel. Some have suggested an appeal to their sense of energy conservation. That might work to some degree but I am a firm believer that people modify their behavior in their own interests. They change because they save money or because they find the change enjoyable or convenient.

There are hundreds of ideas floating around on new concepts of transportation, but let me just offer a few:

- Consider a system of parallel rails for “piggy back” transport of trucks and autos. If vehicles could quickly and economically load onto rail cars near an onramp on one end of a long (two hours or more) stretch of highway and off at the other end for a cost less than the cost of the gasoline to make the same trip – if they could make that trip in a way that left them completely free to sleep or engage in activities they prefer to driving – if truck drivers could extend their range by not having to log the driving time for that segment – if the trip would be quicker than the drive – and if the drivers could be essentially assured of no unforeseen congestion or delays due to weather or accidents, I think many would take advantage of the service. Rails last a lot longer than roads and are less expensive to maintain. Vehicles on rails require very little law enforcement activity. Such a system would save tremendous amounts of fuel (indeed, the train could be electric or powered in other exotic ways). Safety would be greatly improved. Environmental effects would be mitigated. Fuel costs would be reduced. Travel time and frustration would be reduced. Everyone would win. The downside? It would take some investment from the state (which might be partially offset in the long run) in additional right of way and infrastructure. The motoring public would have to get used to the idea, although I would guess that the freight carriers would see the benefit quickly.

- Consider teaming with automakers to develop a system to supply electricity to automobiles in motion (similar to electric trains). Electric vehicles still have a relatively short range but, if they could get the fuel they need to travel long distances as they travel and then have a battery reserve to allow for another 50 to 100 mile range, they could eventually serve commuters who travel distances beyond their normal range and perhaps never have to be “plugged in” at home.

- Explore options for new materials and techniques in the construction of highways and bridges. Heavy truck traffic and winter weather conditions result in the replacement of highway surfaces on a schedule that has become unaffordable. There must be materials and processes that last a lot longer, that are designed for modern traffic, and that are designed for less expensive replacement when they wear out. We know that roads are going to have to be maintained and improved. Why not plan for replacement that is more economic in dollars and delays than we currently experience.

- Modern management information systems (MIS), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Geographic Positioning Systems (GPS), Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFID), motion sensors, and digital communications have dramatically changed air travel. It is time we applied some of the same concepts to surface transportation. Every truck that is delayed on the highway is burning extra fuel and driver time and possible keeping goods from getting to their required destination in time to avoid production loss. I don’t know if anyone has tried to calculate the cost to the economy as a whole, but it has to be astounding. Better information is available. Let’s put it to use in this century.

- Consider designing and managing highways to allow for the foreseeable accident. Why should it be necessary to hold up traffic for hours every time there is a collision? Can’t we allow for separated parallel lanes so that blockage of part of the highway doesn’t result in total paralysis? “Local” and “Express” lanes help to separate traffic but they also provide a safety valve when delays occur. As mentioned above, congestion equals economic costs. They major arteries are built to speed traffic flow, they shouldn’t end up doing the opposite.

There must be thousands of people with better ideas than mine but it seems to me that we have an opportunity change the paradigm. Maybe we ought to think about taking the biggest steps we can.

Thanks for listening,

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