Logistically Speaking: Time is not on our side

I was part of an editors panel at a logistics industry function recently—I know, what could be more mind-numbing than a group of opinionated know-it-alls trying to out-opinionate each other?—and the topic got around to one that's near and dear to all of us: What transportation challenges are of the most concern to shippers?

You can answer that question better than I can, of course, and you're probably way ahead of me with some of the challenges we mentioned:

  • •freight rates
  • fuel prices/fuel shortages/fuel surcharges
  • congestion
  • aging infrastructure
  • lengthened supply chains from globalization efforts
  • capacity and driver shortages
  • port security and cargo security
  • government regulations
  • customer service demands
  • shipper/carrier relationships (or lack thereof).

No real surprises on that list, right? A lot of heads were nodding in the room as we ticked off that litany of "things that keep logistics managers up at night." While obviously every one of those challenges is a real concern, maybe the biggest problem of all for the logistics profession is time. It's the one thing nobody has enough of and the one thing everybody wishes they had more of. And time is what we're rapidly running out of.

According to several sources, the number of inbound containers in the U.S. will grow by as much as 30% over the next three years, and if those trends continue (and there's no reason to believe they won't), within 10 years there will be twice as many containers in the country as there are right now. What are we going to do with all that stuff that will need to be delivered? Many of our ports are already hopelessly congested, the railroads seem to be eliminating tracks at a faster pace than they are laying down new ones, and the only real solution we've heard about for our clogged highways has been to add more tollroads.

I saw an interesting quote from Tim Lynch, a high-ranking executive with the American Trucking Associations. Lynch says, "We must begin now thinking about how we will build and maintain our transportation system." That sounds good on the surface, but my problem is that word " begin"—if we haven't already started thinking about these things, we're in more trouble than we thought.

According to Lynch, the ATA plans to be relentless in its pursuit of gaining more federal funds for the nation's infrastructure, which is good news; the bad news, though, is that the specific plan is three years in the future, when the next highway spending bill comes up for authorization. Considering that the current bill, which took forever to get through Congress, did little more than maintain the status quo as far as funding transportation projects, it's hard to get too excited about efforts aimed at 2009, or later.

Lynch is very concerned, and rightly so, about fuel—not just how much it costs, but how quickly we're using it all up. Some energy analysts are predicting that worldwide production of oil will peak within the next four years, while demand for fossil fuels will continue to rise. True, there are an equal number of analysts who believe there is still plenty of fuel, although even the most optimistic concede that the days of cheap ( relatively speaking) gasoline are probably behind us. And yet, the silence out of Washington addressing our fuel crisis with a comprehensive transportation strategy has been deafening.

The clock is ticking on an imminent transportation crisis, and yet every time the alarm starts to go off, the government merely hits the snooze button. And we're not helping matters any by pinning our hopes on promises and "maybe"s. The time to get serious about fixing these problems is now.

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