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Week of 8.28.09

Transcript: Keep on Trucking?

BRANCACCIO: Here's one way to think about it...our whole country coast to coast has a case of hardening of the arteries. Our highways and our railroads are clogged and antiquated. Cars and trains need these arteries to get where they are going...and they need to get freight -the stuff of commerce even in this digital age—from here to there which is all about jobs for you, your family and your neighbors. Correspondent Miles O'Brien and producer Andrew Fredericks have our report, part of a PBS-wide series on the country's infrastructure that we call "Blueprint America."

O'BRIEN: The difference between men and boys may be the size of their toys. And I have to admit, ever since my days hauling imaginary freight on the Matchbox Line...I always wanted to try my hand at the wheel of a real 18-wheeler. Recently, I got my chance at the Shore Tractor Trailer Driving School in Forked River, New Jersey.

Right? You said right? The other right?

INSTRUCTOR: There you go. Now back to the left.

O'BRIEN: Yeah, yeah...

INSTRUCTOR: All the way to the left...oh no... no...no!

O'BRIEN: I screwed up, huh? I choked. I choked! Alright, Eric. Thank you. Maybe I should have quit while I was ahead- you know, back at the toy box. But Sue Riggs, the school's director of operations, knows how to handle big egos as well as big rigs.

RIGGS: But you did good. You did really well.

O'BRIEN: How's your business here these days?

RIGGS: Very good.

O'BRIEN: Yeah?

RIGGS: You know, with the economy the way it is right now, people are changing what they did for a living. A lot of the jobs that were out there, they're no longer in the work force.

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

RIGGS: You know, we've got people coming through here that are accountants, chefs. It's amazing.

O'BRIEN: Apparently their first lesson is how to talk like a truck driver.

FLORA-STINNETT: All of a sudden, you hear this [bleep] annoying buzzer sounding "AAAAHHHNN." You look at the supply pressure gage. And it's here. I don't care where you are. You're on a bridge, you're in a tunnel, you're on the Parkway, Route 9...I don't care. Get your foot on the break. And stop the truck.

O'BRIEN: Instructor Grace Flora-Stinnett used to drive a dump truck. Now she teaches these truckers-in-training what they'll need to know to pass the test and get a job driving a big rig.

FLORA-STINNETT: What happens if you blow a line? The air is out, right? What happens? Bingo! The spring is out.

O'BRIEN: So, Grace, what's the trick to knowing how to drive a truck? What's the hardest part about it?

Flora-Stinnett: Yourself. If you fight yourself, you lose. The truck's like a good woman - you fight the truck, you lose sweetheart. If you treat it right, it'll take real good care of you.

O'BRIEN: Yeah?

Flora-Stinnett: But, if you don't respect your truck, it'll kill you.

O'BRIEN: Is that what you tell these guys?

Flora-Stinnett: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

Flora-Stinnett: Do I not?

STUDENTS: Yeah.

O'BRIEN: But, business is good here. You've got a pretty full class. What's going on? A lot of people want to be in this business.

Flora-Stinnett: You can't be replaced by a computer or robot, hun. Everything you see has to be moved by truck. Right?

STUDENTS: Yeah. Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: Is that why you guys are here?

STUDENTS: Yeah.

Flora-Stinnett: My boys are in here, and you got every [bleep] trade imaginable coming to this school and they can't find work. OK?

O'BRIEN: Hmm...

Flora-Stinnett: Because of the recession.... everything moves by truck.

O'BRIEN: Yeah, but in a recession, is there still truck driving jobs? Despite the recession.

STUDENTS: Yeah.

O'BRIEN: Really.

Flora-Stinnett: Absolutely, you still gotta eat, right?

O'BRIEN: Right.

Flora-Stinnett: There's always work out there. You know, if you wanna work, you can find it.

O'BRIEN: Who knew? The economy stalls, and yet the good buddies in the 18-wheelers keep their pedals to the metal. Matter of fact, there is reason to believe once the economy hangs a U-ey - there will be a bona fide truck driver shortage... not enough truck drivers to satisfy our acquisitive, impatient ways. After all, we expect our bananas fresh and unblemished, our lettuce crisp, and our books and electronic gadgets at our door the next morning, don't we? It all adds up to 43 million tons of freight traveling nearly 12 billion miles each and every day in America. That's about 300 lbs of stuff a day for each and every American. And the vast majority of it rides on trucks. But buckle up and take a deep breath...because it's about to get worse. At last count there were some six million heavy duty commercial trucks on the nation's roads. If government predictions hold, there will be millions more within the next decade...pounding the already pothole-plagued pavement. President Obama has pledged to fix the roads and everything else that's broken. Step one: his stimulus package.

OBAMA: And the plan's underway to rebuild crumbling roads and bridges, modernize our airports and shipyards, develop high-speed rail networks and restore aging public transit systems. All told, we are making the largest new investment in America's infrastructure since President Eisenhower built the interstate highway system back in the 1950's.

O'BRIEN: But the devil is in the details. As Washington invests massive amounts of money, how should we spend it? Should we simply repair what we have or rethink the way we move goods across America? Is it time to pay the freight in a different way?

GRAVES: We have an insatiable appetite in America for things coming to us, sustaining our quality of life in a really timely manner. We're sort of—We've developed a great impatience with waiting for good things to come to us. And trucking, more than any other mode of freight transportation, makes sure things are the shelf, things are available to you in a very timely manner.

O'BRIEN: Bill Graves is the son of a trucker. When he was a kid, he figured he would one day take the wheel at the family business. A career in politics instead led him to the governor's office in Kansas. But he's not in Kansas anymore. He's inside the beltway, where he has mashed up his interests as head of the American Trucking Associations, the ATA, a trade group with 37,000 members.

GRAVES: As this economy grows, the demand for freight grows. It's a pretty simple calculation. More people, you know, need more stuff. So there will be more trucks on the nation's highways.

O'BRIEN: Good news for Bill and the truckers he represents. But for many of us...well, a pain in the asphalt.
Cynthia Mellon is a community organizer in Newark, NJ, in a neighborhood where people already feel overrun by trucks.

MELLON: We're in the section of Newark that is called the Ironbound.

O'BRIEN: Iron-bound?

CYNTHIA: Ironbound, as in iron.

O'BRIEN: Meaning there's lots of railroad tracks?

MELLON: Ringed with iron, as in the railroad, and lots of industry...

O'BRIEN: Bound by industry...

MELLON: We're in the east ward of Newark. There's a lot of air quality problems here. Trucks pass through here for all kinds of reasons. Those trucks are burning diesel. We know that diesel is a really dirty fuel.

O'BRIEN: And all that exhaust just doesn't sit well in our lungs. It's a big cause of asthma and other major respiratory problems. And the problem is most worrisome in crowded urban areas like this where the trucks move slowly or not at all. And because Ironbound is bounded by one of the nation's busiest ports, folks here get a steady, daily dose of diesel.

You've counted it. Your group has actually gotten together and counted it?

MELLON: We have had a truck count in the neighborhood, yes.

MILES: Tell me about the truck count. What did you find out?

MELLON: Well what we did was we counted trucks at five different intersections for two hours on 15th of December 2008. And we counted at 8 in the morning and 3 to 4 in the afternoon when we thought the most kids would be on the street. We placed people at five different busy intersections. And in that time, in real time, they counted over 1700 trucks.

O'BRIEN: So do we rely in this country on trucks too much, do you think?

MELLON: I think so. As long as people are making money, they're not interested in making a change.

O'BRIEN: Cynthia Mellon is far from the only person questioning America's heavy reliance on trucks.

SPASOVIC: Well look what's happening at the states. You have a situation where you have an imbalance between truck and rail.

O'BRIEN: Dr. Lazar Spasovic is an engineering professor who has spent a career thinking about how freight moves, something most of us pay no attention to at all, unless our Amazon shipment doesn't magically appear overnight.

SPASOVIC: The question becomes should you continue what you're doing now depending mostly on truck traffic or do you wanna do something that can maybe divert traffic from truck onto freight railroads?

O'BRIEN: Spasovic believes the answer is obvious... that it is high time to spend the money needed to move more freight off the roads and onto the rails.

SPASOVIC: But don't me wrong. Trucking serves a wonderful function in society. My point is that there ought to be some kind of more efficient balancing of freight moving by truck verses moving by rail.

O'BRIEN: Is the professor on the right track? Well as you might suspect, the railroads think so.

FREIGHT COMPANY AD: One way to keep things moving? Freight rail. Each freight train can take up to 280 trucks off the road.

O'BRIEN: These spots played in Washington right before lawmakers went home for the summer vacation.

FREIGHT COMPANY AD: That's how freight rail works.

O'BRIEN: But the railroads are not taking a break from trying to take some business away from the trucking industry. They say a freight train is much more efficient and cleaner.

GOETZ: Perhaps as much as, like, a third the amount of fuel. And that also translate into a really compelling environmental story in terms of the amount of... our carbon footprint associated with the movement of freight.

O'BRIEN: Bill Goetz is a vice president at the big freight outfit CSX. We met at the Kearny rail yard across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
So on a daily basis, how much traffic goes on here?

GOETZ: We have several trains a day that move both in and out of this facility and in a normal economic year, this facility will handle about 300,000 equivalent truckloads.

O'BRIEN: Truckloads? Isn't that the wrong T-word? Well, as it turns out, trucks and trains often work together. Look at all the trucks in this rail yard. For longer hauls, say, 500 miles or more, putting trailers on trains is more efficient than hauling them the whole way on the road. Trucking companies take advantage of that, dropping their loads at one end and picking them up at the other. So, trains and trucks can live together. Dogs and cats can get along and all that stuff, right?

GOETZ: This facility is living proof of that. You see the trucks coming in, the trucks leaving. You see the trains coming in, trains leaving. And it's really all about each doing what each does best to be competitive.

O'BRIEN: So you guys love each other.

GOETZ: We like our customers, yes

O'BRIEN: In reality, there's really no love lost between truckers and railroaders when it comes to the fight over limited infrastructure dollars. The rail industry wants the government to help defray the costs of upgrades. In many parts of the country double deckers can't clear bridges and tunnels and switching systems are antiquated. In the end, a better system means they could haul more freight more efficiently. For Bill Goetz, it's a no-brainer.

GOETZ: We can move trucks on trains using railroad rights of way. It postpones the need for new interstate highway construction which is very, very expensive and very disruptive in terms of acquiring the rights of way in highly settled areas.

O'BRIEN: "But not so fast" say the truckers. In fact, not so fast is the problem, as they look at our crowded crumbling highways.

GRAVES: I don't think we oughta let the American public or our public policy makers be deluded into believing that somehow that's an answer, that we can walk away from investment in highways and bridges because we put freight on rail. Because at the end of the day, there is a still a starting point and an ending point on a rail line and the freight had to get to the rail line somehow. And once it gets to the ending point it's got to get distributed somehow and I'm pretty convinced those are trucks in both instances.

O'BRIEN: The American Trucking Associations is pushing its own plan in Washington, and it is not just asking for more, smoother and wider highways.

GRAVES: we believe that if you want to make an impact on the number of trucks traveling up and down the road, you're gonna have to make those current configurations more efficient, as they currently exist.

O'BRIEN: "More efficient" is truck lobby spin for "longer and heavier." The ATA wants congress to approve double and triple trailers on more highways. And the ATA is pushing to increase weight limits, from 80,000 to 97,000 pounds. While you ponder what it will be like to drive among those monster trucks, Bill Graves says not to worry. It will mean fewer trucks on the road. that's because three heavier trucks equal four lighter ones. Federal safety agencies haven't weighed in on whether heavier trucks would present more hazards. but it's not been an easy sell, even to some truckers.

What do you think about having bigger trucks, heavier trucks on the road?

Flora-Stinnett: You mean, running more weight in them?

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

Flora-Stinnett: Absolutely not. You're cutting down on the truck drivers. That's number one. And they are heavy enough. They already have a long stopping distance. They already lose their breaks from too much heat absorbed into the chambers. You put more weight on the truck, the breaks absorb more heat. You put less drivers on the road. No! That's something...that's, that's bad.

O'BRIEN: But, if you put extra axels underneath, it doesn't matter.

Flora-Stinnett: No. But why don't we just keep it the way it is, and keep our boys working.

Footage of Highway Dedication: We are gathered here today to dedicated a new highway, one segment of a great national system of highways, that one day soon will connect the major cities of our land.

O'BRIEN: We have kept it the way it is, more or less, since the 50's, when President Eisenhower put us and our freight on the road in a big way with the interstate system. Forty-six thousand miles of easy-on, easy-off highway. Americans bought cars and poured out of cities. Suburbs spread across the land, as did industry and centers of commerce. It spread us out in every direction, and literally left the railroads behind.

GRAVES: It really created the connectivity that allows us to live and work anywhere in America, and trucking was uniquely capable of filling that need. Every time a new subdivision gets built, and somebody needs something delivered to their home, you can find a trucking company prepared to be there at your door and drop that off.

O'BRIEN: Before joining Shore Tracker Trailer, Sue Riggs worked the nation's highways as a trucker for eighteen years.

RIGGS: I enjoyed it when I was out there. I mean, you get to see The United States, you know, like 'cause I ran cross country. You get to see a lot of things you can't see by train. You can't. You can't see it by plane. You gotta come right through somebody's town. It's wonderful. And most people don't ever get to see that.

O'BRIEN: So you loved it.

RIGGS: Yeah, I did.

O'BRIEN: But the sprawling highway network Sue Riggs loves is literally set in concrete and cannot be changed without some big money and effort. Rail may sound like an easy alternative, but most of the lines were cleared and built in the 19th century. Then the highway system and strict government price controls led the railroads to near-ruin. By the 1970's, most of them were bankrupt. They abandoned half of all their lines. And get this: many of the lines that are left are also jammed with traffic. You just don't know it because you don't drive a locomotive to work. In fact, bottlenecks in many places often slow rail traffic to a crawl. Chicago is the poster child for this problem. The trains move so slowly through the Windy City that the freight is often unloaded, trucked across town and then plopped back on a rail car to finish the journey. On this stretch of track, conductors must bring fully-loaded trains to a complete stop, get out and switch rails....by hand. Bottom line: making the rails a real alternative will require some real money. But before we spend a penny, experts like Dr. Spasovic say we need to rethink the very way we think.

SPASOVIC: One needs to look at the network of this nation as a whole, that consists of highways that need improvements; of railroads that need improvements; and how these two modes can be interfaced in the most efficient way.

O'BRIEN: Well, actually the term of art is "intermodal," from one mode to another. A freight relay, if you will. Trains and trucks each doing the part of the job they do most economically, then passing the baton. Bottom line: it's about retooling the freight infrastucture so that American business can compete in the global marketplace.

OBERSTAR: Transportation is international competitiveness. Moving goods to market is part of the international economic picture. And if we reduce the cost of moving goods then we're reducing the cost of living for our fellow citizens.

O'BRIEN: Congressman James Oberstar chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He is a lawmaker on an intermodal mission. In June, he introduced the "Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009." The expansive bill aims to make huge investments modernizing America's current transportation infrastructure. But at the same time it attempts to rethink how the system might better move the next generation.

OBERSTAR: Improving our transportation, reducing congestion, improving the mobility of people and goods in our society has to be our goal and we have to show how we're going to deliver that.

O'BRIEN: But Oberstar's bill carries a huge pricetag: 450 billion dollars. A big number anytime but especially now, amid a deep recession and steep deficits. So where will the money come from? The options are either more deficits or more taxes. As it stands, we mostly pay for our roads and bridges with taxes we pay on fuel. But politically, new taxes is a no-go, so the Obama administration has taken a gas tax hike off the table and has asked Congress to delay debate on the transportation bill for 18 months.

OBERSTAR: Wake up, over there in the White House!

O'BRIEN: It's got Oberstar hopping mad.

OBERSTAR: We do not need an eighteen month extension. Eighteen month extension will put us into the next presidential election cycle. It will take four years...

O'BRIEN: The economy will rebound faster he says, if transportation is modernized.

OBERSTAR: If we don't change the future of transportation, we expect more congestion, more detrimental air quality effects, more hours spent in traffic, more cost of moving people and goods in our society, and we will continue to add to greenhouse gases and to the accelerating global climate change.

O'BRIEN: But for now, wholesale changes in how we move the freight will have to wait. Back in New Jersey, trucks still rumble through the Ironbound section of Newark. And Cynthia Mellon is frustrated, but not giving up the fight and not losing site of an elusive goal.

Can you have it all though? Can you have it clean? Can you have it efficient?

MELLON: Oh, I think we can.

O'BRIEN: Really?

MELLON: There has to be political will and the will of society to change it. Certainly, that's the future.

FLORA-STINNETT: This formula is extremely simple, unless you over-think it. If I sit a five-year-old in that chair, and I do this formula, the five-year-old will have absolutely no problem. Do you know why? They don't think.

O'BRIEN: But for now at least, the future looks bright here at the Shore Tractor Trailer School. The students keep on coming and we are told those that can back up without taking out cones can get a good job.

RIGGS: There'll always be trucks. When the trucks stop, that's when the economy is done. Nobody's going to deliver nothing. There won't be any food. There won't be any clothing. There won't be anything. When the trucks stop, that's it.

O'BRIEN: But society takes it all for granted. We want what we want. Plentiful, inexpensive, yet high quality goods delivered fast and cheap. When you think about it, it seems like magic, doesn't it? But it is actually about planning ahead and making big investments.

FOOTAGE OF A 1950'S HIGHWAY: Roads for men to go places...

O'BRIEN: That's what our grandparents did a few generations ago. Now it may be our turn to pay the freight.

BRANCACCIO: Crumbling infrastructure is a national issue, but it's also right in your community. What is happening to roads, bridges and railways where you live? Use an interactive map to discover the most pressing and dangerous infrastructure issues in your state. You can get there from our online show page at pbs.org. And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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