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Week of 8.28.09

Keep on Trucking?

Would you pay more in taxes to fix roads and rail?

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The majority of American goods are transported by trucks, even though freight trains are greener and more fuel-efficient. Where should America be placing its bets for moving our economy and what would you personally sacrifice for it?

This week, Correspondent Miles O'Brien looks at the contemporary needs, challenges, and solutions for transporting vital cargo across America, and how those decisions affect the way you live, work, and travel.

This program is part of a PBS-wide series on the country's infrastructure called "Blueprint America."

Related Links

American Society of Civil Engineers: Report Card for America's Infrastructure

Blueprint America: Interviews with Rep. Jim Oberstar and
Rep. John Mica on the House Transportation Bill

Infrastructure in Your State

What are the most pressing and dangerous infrastructure issues where you live? See an interactive report card to find out.
Blueprint America/The NewsHour: Choke Point
A report from Chicago on the state of America's freight rail network.

NOW: Driven to Despair
The high price people are paying, in both dollars and quality of life, just to get to work.

Blueprint America Rockefeller Foundation Thirteen/WNET

Viewer Comments

Commenter: Nicole~Marie DeSpain
I am from Portland, OR and now call Austin, Texas home.
I grew up in an overall environmentally progressive city and have found that my new home is struggling, though making great leaps and bounds, to think and "move" beyond its car culture inheritance.

Portland, OR used to have many trolleys rolling through its town until corporate pressure upon government ripped out the tracks to make way for polluting pavement and privatized profits.

Why were cities' histories of trolleys not discussed in this segment? And why not bring up another transportation topic - that of cross-state and cross-national bullet trains?

Yes, your show was discussing transporting goods, but why not do a follow up segment on using tax dollars to restore train lines and crumbling highways into bullet trains for people and goods?

As well, why not put tax dollars to a better use and fulfill a connected pattern of environmentally responsible energy - replace burning coal with solar and wind power across the entire southern region and other year round sunnier parts of the US - and create trucks that are hybrids - plug these big rigs into huge solar power and wind outlets and a little diesel when up north and east. This joint program could cut all types of toxic emissions, less coal being shipped via diesel guzzling trains to incinerator plants and less trucks/trains themselves burning up diesel.

All around this is a better way of transportation for humans, our wallets, and our dying environment.

Commenter: Anthony Alarcon
Well , I think it is not a highway problem , or train system . the issue and the big problem here , is where people live . from big cities like New york , L.A , Dallas , Atlanta, Chicago , Miami , Boston , etc ,. make those highways and rail super traffic backup. so I think the big error here was to let those cities grown like there is not more land for develop , I live in ocala, fl and is not far from orlando , and i think that orlando traffic would be better if they stop from allow people to live in millions in small area when there is plenty of land to balance the population and with this , highway could be balance , why do we have to drive in traffic in L.A , and there is not traffic on I-5 going to Portland. This is the Price we pay for to much freedom , of course everyone wants to live in L.A or NY or Miami , but Hunk I will not live in a place where is more people and cars that roads can handle... Please People think about that before your build more roads , rails or etc. there is plenty of roads , tracks , and Interstate already , so put that money to make small town in maps with grow and make new towns , and reduce the size of your city, if you are sick and tired about traffic , moved like a did ...

Commenter: Peggy Conroy
Thanks for the Keep on Trucking episode. You did point out some problems but were waaaaay too nice to the trucking industry. For many reasons we should put our freight back on the railroads where it belongs. Here are a few:
1. Cost-railroads are cheaper. They can carry more for the same fuel cost
2. Cost-railroads pollute a fraction of the amount per ton carried compared to trucks
3. Cost- railroads don't cost taxpayers a fortune every couple of years to fix pavement and bridges trashed by huge trucks. One truck does the damage of 15,000 cars due to the seismic stress.
4. Cost-death and damage to humans and other life is due mostly to trucks. They cause the most deadly accidents and are soooooo big they don't even notice when they force you off the roads in good weather much less in rain or blinding snow.
5. Cost-terrorism to drivers as trucks harass smaller vehicles causing drivers' blindness when roaring past in nasty weather as well as to those pulling horse trailers, etc. that truckers consider having no right to share "their" highway. Many of us are forced off roads truckers dominate by taking alternate, longer routes that are safer because of fewer trucks
6. Cost-noise pollution

Commenter: Mike
Why is it always "would you pay more taxes"? When is this government going to cut wasteful spending, of which there is no shortage? As a nation, we could fund all *appropriate* spending by getting spending under control, including the great excesses of entitlement programs.
If people are truly concerned about spending more gov't money on better transportation, stop asking citizens for more taxes, and start *telling* politicians (via their mailbox and the ballot box) to make large cuts in unneeded, and unconstitutional spending.

Commenter: Michael Gleason
Just caught your "Keep on Trucking?" program with Miles O'Brien. Someone needs to curb that boy. His sing-song, cliche-riddled delivery* is just the sort of cheesy style that drives viewers like me away from the mainstream media. To be sure, content is central... but delivery is content's handmaiden and O'Brien's self-conscious patois is a cloying diversion from your program's focus.


Michael Gleason
Miami Beach, FL

Oh yeah, by the way, what's this crack supposed to mean: "President Obama has pledged to fix the roads and everything else that's broken."

*the difference between men and boys may be the size of their toys... try my hand...quit while I was ahead... knows how to handle big egos as well as big rigs... business is good... who knew?... pedals to the metal... economy hangs a u-ie... it all adds up to... buckle up and take a deep breath... the devil is in the details... pay the freight (#1)... take the wheel of the family business ... not in kansas anymore... inside the beltway... pain in the asphalt... doesn't sit well... daily dose of diesel... the answer is obvious... on the right track... dogs and cats can get along... no love lost... no-brainer... not so fast... weighed in... easy alternative... poster child... bottom line (#1)... making rails a real alternative will take some real money... we need to rethink the way we think... bottom line (#2)... hugh price tag... no go... off the table... hopping mad... changes in how we move the freight, will have to wait... the future looks bright... all for granted... we want what we want... pay the freight (#2).

Commenter: Patti Leary
A good report overall, however I found it disturbing that the root cause of most of the problems mentioned, that is OVERPOPULATION (about to hit 7 billion soon!), was never even mentioned. It's not only NOT on the table, it's not in the National Conversation AT ALL, even on programs and stations like this that might be considered liberal and non-biased.

The terms I did hear Miles O'Brien use were

1."Infrastructure Plan" Sure we need some repairs and inspections, but could this possibly be new-speak for recklessly widening and expanding the current road system to meet the needs of our current population as well as growth to oh say, 2020, when once again we find ourselves choked with vehicles and the whole thing obsolete before the work is even finished?

2. "With the world getting smaller all the time..." No, in fact, the world is not getting smaller; we are getting more numerous, to the point of being referred by many scientists and others as a "cancer on the Earth". A better way to say it might have been, "With America unsustainably overcrowded now and growing at an exponential rate..."

3. Bill Gray says it's a simple, [inevitable] equation: "More people, more goods, more trucks," without even qualifying the statement with "given current population growth trends," which might indicate that we as a country do have a choice. It's like the old adage, "You can't stop progress." Nonsense! Of course you can!

I also resent the fact that Mr. O'Brien starts off by telling us that "helping truckers is good for all of us." Myopically true perhaps, except that we are now entering the "Post-Fossil Fuel" era and are discovering how big is not always better, more is often less, how wasteful we are, how unsustainable our behaviors are, that lots of material things and lots of money are not the keys to happiness, love, or respect.

I also resented O'Brien's Corporate Projection onto us, "that there won't be enough truck drivers to satisfy our acquisitive and 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?" And the snarky comment about "none of us thinking about how freight is moved ...unless our Amazon package doesn't 'magically' appear the next day." Well, no Miles, a lot of us are not that shallow and self-centered.

An increasing number of us are concerned and willing Americans wanting to restore balance both on our planet and in our lives. Many of us are growing our own produce or going to our local farmer's markets both to keep commerce local and to eat healthy seasonal organic foods not grown with fossil fuel fertilizers. Actually, I choose the fruit with the blemishes because it usually indicates that it's real and probably tastier than the unblemished. I download books digitally to my Kindle and music to my I-Pod.

Bill Gray uses a fallacy of common belief when he again paints Americans as, "...having an insatiable appetite for things coming to us, sustaining our quality of life, in a really timely manner." Maybe you could get away with that statement in the 80s and 90s but among all the people I know, young and old alike, gratuitous consumption is just SO OUT. We are all members of Reverend Billy's "Church of Stop Shopping," Sure, there was a time in my life when I succumbed to the marketing hype and was a profligate spender and hyper-consumer, but I think we as a society are figuring that out - I hope so anyway. I really don't care if my package takes 2 weeks to get to me. Bottom line, Bill Gray just wants a whole lot more of those huge, dangerous, ecological monsters out on the roads, spewing out that toxic diesel exhaust.

I'm happy that at least some of the program focused on rail freight which makes so much sense!! Also, I do believe we really need to step away and take a look at the big picture, and brainstorm new paradigms for our urban/work spaces and commuting, as well as transportation and shipping.

Finally, I figure I consume on average, in some form or another, maybe 1-2 lbs a day, tops and that includes the spring water I receive in recyclable 5-gal jugs. So, who is using my other 299 lbs/day?

Commenter: Michael Darter
Great show, factual and unbiased. we obviously need both good highways and good rails. The Interstate Highway System has had an enormous effect on economic growth in North America. Just compare South America and you will see nothing like that there. There is very little country to country trade no highways in South America and this has led to much lower economic growth.

Commenter: joe
Shame on PBS for perpetuating myths re. diesel technology and global warming. (see,0,4467832.column )

Commenter: Dan Bigda
Dear People,

We saw what happened when fuel was 4 dollars a gallon. Us here in the rail industry saw an influx of new business. We lost tons of trucking companies also. But, we need both. Also, the Railroads have to change their mindset about short hauling.

I think the rail industry is going to be the way to go without any mandates from the government. The mandate is going to come from fuel prices. Both with freight and passenger rail. Don't get me wrong either, trucks will still be needed. The RR's have built huge intermodal yards and are still investing in them. (NS making huge investments here East of the Mississippi.) We will need those intermodal yards to bring the trains in and then transport from there to other distribution facilities then to the stores, etc..

Anyhow, we need both. Just what is the right answer.. Again, I think the answer will be dictated by fuel prices.


Commenter: Justin D
The money equation is available and being utilized to support our current and future infrastructure. This is true without more taxes - if growth centers on major arteries (rail

Commenter: Torriano Marvin
The ideas of all who read the comments and make their own comments need to look at the big picture. America is growing at a rapid pace and the infrastructureof our nations highways needs fixing. The idea of rail and trucking is working called the intermodal but lets look at how this problem is being resolved in europe. The autobon is the most amazing highway that I have ever seen and they have trucks, trains and their system works. You won't find a more greener country than europe, think about it and don't comment if you have never visited, seen it, or driven it. Sometimes you have to think whats best for the Nation and just not the montary means of peoples pockets. The question always rises where will the money come from in the days of our forfathers trying to establish a nation they made away to make the dreams of a nation thrive and happen. Question is when can we make this happen and not prolong the inevitable delays of a few pennies from every american. You wouldn't believe what 5 cents from every american will add up to be.

Commenter: Charles Flodquist
The fundamental question that was never asked in the 1950's and is still not being asked today, is how do you run a freeway system when we can't afford to buy the gas to power the trucks and cars? Railroads could be run for much less fuel/mile or possibly even with electicity.

Commenter: Louis
People living in exurbs have on some level made on conscious choice to be so far out. If affordability is really an issue, why didn't these people opt for smaller housing (closer in) or, if all else failed, rent a place?

Commenter: timothy john wick
Puns has it right. But, I suppose PBS (now Corporate or CPBS) will be dumbing down its shows like virtually everything else on the tube. Are there only two modes of transporting goods? No ships, barges, aircraft? Hmmm.
Did those industries disappoint in their level of funding for your institution? I hate to use worn out European analogies, but why is it that they can sustain such an efficient system of interaction between and among people, trucks and trains? Is there a real need for triple trailers with super increased dimensions overloaded to record levels traveling alongside ever smaller automobiles at higher speeds and changing lanes whipsaw-like based not on law or courtesy, but on macnismo and pure intimidation? Coupled with the NRA's wildly successful campaign for right to carry in virtually any situation, I ccan foresee foadrage increasing to the extent that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez will be reduced to making real time action films. PBS/roadrage/

Commenter: Kathleen Littlefield
I was laid off six years ago. I spent three years looking for work in my chosen field as a programer analyst with 28 years of experience. After sending out countless resumes and going on many interviews, I realized that the employers wanted my experience in a younger package. My money ran out and out of desperation I decided to "reinvent" myself and drive a semi truck.
It is amazing how much freight is coming to us from China, via train. The trucks pick up the freight and deliver this to towns across america.
Trucking companies pay for the use of the roads. I dont understand why the federal government requires more. Where is the accountability of the past and current funds? Why should we pay more taxes?

Commenter: dixie
health care for US rx:

Give every US citizen/legal rsident what our represntatives in Congress are receiving. Should any member of Congress say no, to this solution, yank his/her coverage.
It's that easy.
A show detailing congressional health care options (paid for by those of us who can't even afford to pay for our own), should rattle a few conservative braincells.
If we don't act now, we're all going to pay quite a bit more. (Think pre-Katrina New Orleans and all those warnings from those in the know.)
Thank you for allowing my idea fent.

Commenter: jay
Trains are far more fuel efficient than trucks. The point of the show is to have the trains move the containers the greatest distance of the route. Then, have the trucks take over. It's the using each for what it does best principle.When it comes to transportation this country has always favored one over another. We have trouble with the walking ang chewing gum at the same time. It's a major reason why this country, that has5% of the world's population, uses 20-25% of it's oil.

Commenter: Angelo
Political will is tainted by lobbyist money used for campaigns. To change anything in the USA we need campaign finance reform. Also, why doesn't anyone talk about the 50% of the U.S. budget that goes to the military. We have plenty of money in American it is just going to the wrong places. Please watch the documentary "Why We Fight" and your eyes will be opened.

Commenter: Pete B.
We hear a lot about how the federal heath plans are and would someone walk us down the road of what a federal heath plan is and show it works and how it works by show one at work by using one so that we can see one at work.

Commenter: Tricia Reynolds
We desparately need mass transit. The American People need to switch to local shopping, farmer's market, and to support hi speed rail to support our way of life that is sustainable. Our truck drivers can be "Repurposed" to mass transit, rail, or the transit of choice. Let's do it.

Commenter: Alan Kandel
A dozen or so years ago, I had a letter published in RailNews magazine discussing this very topic. After a brief introduction, I got right to the meat of the matter. Here's some of what I wrote.

"You think, as taxpayers, we would be adamant about the condition of our highways and the amount of tax money it takes to keep them in shape. Yet, the average motorist delayed by a train at a highway/rail intersection frequently displays anger or frustration. What he or she doesn't realize is that the number of trailers and containers moving on trains result in fewer and fewer trucks on our nation's highways. Less trucks on the highways means less traffic congestion; less catastrophic degradation to the road surface and subgrade; less pollution; and ..., fewer accidents involving the big rigs" ("A Case for Intermodal," RailNews, Jan. 1997, p. 6).

As I declared then and do now, totally eliminating trucks from the roadways isn't the answer. Rather, the solution lies in finding the most efficient means to move trucks and trains; i.e., finding the right balance. That point was stressed in "Keep on Trucking?"

One of the problems as I and am sure others see it, is where the money for all the infrastructure improvements needed to allow this to happen, is going to come from. Another is competition. In addressing the latter, I wrote:

"The railroads could certainly benefit from an increased market share. The number of train personnel required for moving the trailers as well as the need for new intermodal equipment to handle the increased business all point toward increased employment opportunities. And this doesn't necessarily mean more unemployment among truckers. New opportunities would be out there in train operations and manufacturing. The same number of truck trailers and containers would be moving--perhaps even more, but the logistics would be different."

At the end of the day, I believe what needs to happen is alliances between trucking and (pardon the pun) "training" partners need to be strengthened. In so doing, all concerned will benefit. When - not if - this transpires, what we'll be left with is a truly efficient - perhaps, even extraordinary - transportation system that will become the model for the world.

Here's hoping.

Commenter: Henry G. Schwarz
Your program gave too much weight to trucks and not nearly enough to trains. If we had invested one/tenth of the amount of money poured into highways since Eisenhower into rails, we would now live more cheaply and cleaner.

Commenter: Stephen Roybal - Denver, CO
This will continue to be a debate between the train and truck interests. (Basically $) We can argue about the benefits on both sides or try to compromise. More importantly is a REAL discussion of personal and nationwide standards based on efficiency, comprehensive highway policy, mass transit reform, railway infrastructure, and arguably most important: environmental standards (especially considering that the State Department has recently classified Global Warming as a potential future threat to National Security). Unfortunately for now passion and support from a significant amount of regular citizens is not in the forefront of the debate so substantive reform will probably not happen any time soon. I hope I am wrong.


On a personal note I love NOW and I never miss a show. I am always exposing new people to this informative and entertaining show as well as encouraging their donations to our local PBS station RMPBS. Thank you.

Commenter: Marilyn Rantala
Just watched the show on the trucking industry. Definately think this is the time to completely revamp and expand our system of railroads, not necessairly at the expense of our highway system. Increase the gas tax, then maybe more people will be in the market for the smaller cars now in production!

Commenter: Sally Sabo
I'd pay more only if I could be sure we are not being ripped off by graft and corruption.

Commenter: Wayne Wiley
Trains are "greener" and more fuel-efficient than trucks? When it comes to getting the goods you and I need to our local grocery stores and Wal-Marts, this is hardly the case. Rail service can only service huge warehouses, many of which no longer use rail service because of the high costs associated with shipping by rail. And in order to get a baoxcar to that warehouse, a rail line has to be built to get it there. Do we really want to see more rails running through your city? For that matter, do you really want to have to deal with the problems associated with waiting at more rail crossings to clear so motorized traffic can flow again?

What it boils down to is this. A truck will get the goods you need to the store where you need to buy the faster and cheaper than rail service can or ever will be able to provide. It is far easier and faster to dispatch a loaded truck to a final destination and have it arrive on time than it is to trust it to a rail system that is geared to transport multiple rail cars to a single destination.

Rail transportation is infinitely more energy efficient than using trucks. federal public policy has subsidized trucks for 50 years to the detriment of land use, the economy and the environment. Future energy prices will stop trucking in it's tracks. consider the future, support rail, now not later. Support the Jim Oberstar bill prioritizing rail NOW.

Commenter: Liz
The rail system should definitely be upgraded, including high speed rail for passengers, and trucks limited to shorter distances. What this program failed to address is that the cost of fuel oil will be going up again, and this will make trucking even less economical than it is now. Continued reliance on oil will only delay the inevitable transition away from trucks and cars, to cleaner, more efficient public transport and rail.

The assumption that we can't live without produce trucked from far away or luxuries delivered to our door overnight is ridiculous. Supporting locally grown food and products is the future. We can create a much healthier economy by helping small farmers at home. We can put more people back to work making goods right here in the U.S.A. instead of trucking stuff shipped here from China, and eliminate pollution while we do it. Would I pay more taxes for this? Yes, but not for more of the same.

Commenter: John Fraser
Why is it that barge operators don't pay a dime towards dam, river, and lock operation and maintenance. The rest of us have to pay for construction and maintnance of our roads and bridges. They get a free ride on the tax payer.

Commenter: Mary Arnold
Diverting freight from trucks to railroads has its own problems. Rail infrastructure is crumbling also. In my Queens, NYC neighborhood countless rail tankers with Liquid Propane Gas rumble over crumbling and corroded railway bridges. The Anacostia-Pacific freight yard still uses locomotives that spew diesel smoke as they switch cars. The railroad corridor is a no-man's-land of dumping, weeds, graffiti. Unlike interstate trucking which is subject to contemporary regulation, the railroads are still operating on their property with one foot in the era of the 19th C. robber barons.

Commenter: Sarah H. Gordon
As a transportation historian I appreciated your coverage of trucking vs. railroad movement of freignt. It seems to overlook a view trends however. One is the extensive initiative already underway to replace diesel fuel with clean fuel alternatives, such as algae fuel. We also already have containers that fit on both truck beds and railroad frames to interchange the type of transport. Railroad beds are already being readied in many states to move freight near the highways, to enable flexibility.
And finally, it might be useful to look at the grants of money coming from the Department of Energy every week to the states, all for energy conversion and the defraying of expenses. The Recovery Act has started the Federal funding of state projects related to cleaner fuel, and it would be very interesting to follow up on these grants, and see in fact how the money is used in each state.If you don't mention these things you may depress the heck out of your audience. Things are not quite that bad.Thank you very much, Sarah H. Gordon

Commenter: Mary Kennedy
Have you checked out J.B. Hunt which a while ago moved their truck onto the railroads--since they were so competitive other trucking companies have followed. They have major dropoff points across the midwest and west. Are you only looking at the NE? The fewer trucks on midwest and western highways is noticable!

Commenter: Puns

Do you know what those ticks are? They are the amount of puns used by your correspondent. This was a wonderful opportunity to explain, in depth, the intricacies of the transportation problems in the U.S. I depend on PBS to make me a more informed American, this piece failed on that endeavor.

Not unlike an uniformed pundit, your piece purposefully used vagueness to avoid the requirements of solid journalism. There were no facts cited, no map showing specific weaknesses in the system, no in-depth interviews, just sound bites and stock footage of trucks and trains with long insinuating voice overs. There was no substantive framework from which to understand the issues; as an audience member I was not moved from one position to another, nor were my original beliefs confirmed. I was just left wasting 23 minutes of my time.

The men and women interviewed certainly had important perspectives to share, instead this piece used stock photos of trains and trucks which provided absolutely no context, cutting away from their insight prematurely. NOW, I expect you to put professionals on the air. David and Maria routinely provide solid content, ask insightful questions, and cite specific scientifically based facts to help me be a better citizen.

As a contentious PBS member I implore you to not produce pieces with such little fact based journalism. Between this piece and the cacophony that was the Israeli soldiers report NOW's integrity has begun to waiver.

I look forward hopefully to next week's Gitmo piece. Please take the time and resources to truly delve into the issues.

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