Chain of Thought

Conveyors As Freight Highways

If you want a peek at the future of our transportation infrastructure, look no further than an automated conveyor system. That's Dan McNichol's view, anyway. This nationally recognized expert on the U.S. Interstate Highway System, and author of The Roads that Built America, was interviewed by National Public Radio recently and he said he sees highways becoming more automated in the future. Roads will sense congestion and automatically detour traffic. On-ramps will stagger cars to help maintain flow.

Sounds like a sortation system to me. But the comparison to conveyors doesn't stop there.

"In the future, those lanes might be conveyor belts, carrying freight that are unmanned," he was quoted as saying. “They might be truck lanes, they might be high-speed rail lines, but building up is definitely the answer."

Did I read him right? Does he really think we'll have long runs of conveyor carrying freight along our interstates? I called him to find out if he was serious.

He was and he is. During our phone conversation, he told me he worked in road construction in a past life and even wrote a book about it called “Paving the Way: Asphalt in America.” When working in this field, he was impressed by the capabilities of conveyor systems to haul heavy loads.

“I was talking with the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) about re-envisioning our transportation system and came across the concept of moving freight from Galveston to Houston,” he told me. “The idea is to put freight coming right off ships onto these huge conveyors—putting cargo containers off the hulls of a ship onto a system of conveyors that would run along or in the median of or above the interstates. These conveyors could be used to bridge different modes of transportation, from ship and skipping rail to move it directly to a DC.”

He doesn't see something like this as being publicly funded, however. The most likely sources of funding would be the ports, especially those that need to get a competitive advantage over other ports.

“Any port looking to break out of a stagnant market would benefit,” he said. “It would require land between the port and the hub city. You'd want a DC that could accommodate trucks going to airports or rail picking up cargo for longer hauls.”

Sounds like an expensive proposition. But McNichol says the most expensive component of any road is almost always the land it sits on, and that the cost of something like this would be secondary to the cost of that. With the Interstate system, that land is already paid for by the states.

Matt Jeanneret, spokesman for ARTBA, told me his association has already proposed to Congress the concept of a “Critical Commerce Corridor,” that would have dedicated truck-only lanes on the nation's highways. The association also likes the idea of “elevated" roadways built above the existing highways. The chairman of the House Transportation Committee Jim Oberstar, of Minnesota, has already said a National Freight Program is a priority.

“Seventy-five percent of the nation's freight is carried by truck,” Jeanneret told me. “Based on government's projections we envision truck traffic doubling in the next 25 years and trucks will still be the primary means to move freight. DOT identified over 200 freight bottlenecks around the country that cost about $8billion a year to the trucking industry and 243 million hours of lost time. That would be a good place to start.”

McNichol is obviously a big thinker. He was inspired by President Dwight Eisenhower's ability to change everyone's common view of roads and develop it into today's Interstate system. That's the kind of thinking that could inspire an industry take hold of this conveyor concept.

Why not the material handling industry? Tell me if you think McNichol is on the right path or if this concept is off-track. Now that logistics is in the national spotlight thanks to this nation's crumbling infrastructure, it's time for this audience to be heard.

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