The Last Mile: No Shipment Left Behind

Tony Furst, the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) director of freight management and operations, is the first to agree that freight must be integrated into transportation planning at all levels. In late April, Furst convened a meeting of FHWA district representatives and members of the Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), that looked at how the U.S. could/should establish a national freight policy.

Enabling a closer coordination among the modes and between government and the private sector to identify and move issues forward in a timely manner is a massive undertaking, but one that needs to be made. Such an effort could move us well along the way to the creation of an efficient and responsive transportation system.

Furst cites a requirement for freight coordinators that was contained in the first version of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), enacted over a decade ago. Put someone in place in each state right now, he suggests, to represent these disparate groups in their efforts to develop and use the world's largest and most developed transportation system efficiently and effectively.

Realistically, FHWA and its parent U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) will have to break down some significant funding and modal silos if the goal is to get the government to shorten its typical 20-year planning horizon.

If the FHWA does indeed succeed at its task, then freight may finally be getting a voice of authority in Washington, and just in time.

With my mind racing ahead to what might be accomplished by a well coordinated network of local, state and federal representatives, private sector interests, economic development groups, and various transportation services interests, that same week I also sat on a panel on "sustainable transportation" at a regional leadership conference. There I sat in stunned disbelief when one of the highly respected members of the panel told an eager audience of community leaders, "What we need are bike paths."

I guess there are two ways you can look at the statement, "The world is flat." Thomas Friedman's new book by that name says we have eliminated many of the barriers in the supply chain, making the globe a flat, smooth surface — at least metaphorically. The ease with which global commerce flows, helped by efficient transportation, supports Friedman's 21st Century view.

Then, at the opposite extreme, there is the other attitude we usually associate with a flat-earth mentality — one that is anything but progressive. Needless to say, it was quite discouraging to hear an acknowledged urban planning leader tell business leaders and economic development people that bike paths are the cure to what ails them.

On the bright side, though, if nothing else his short-sighted focus on a personal pet project offers a vivid example of exactly why we need a national freight transportation policy, if for no other reason than to save us from quixotic quests when what we need is a solid plan to revamp our infrastructure.

Remember the ancient warning that at the edge of the earth, "there be dragons," but have no fear — we can slay them.

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