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Fueling Change in Intermodal Transportation

The high cost of fuel is leading to fundamental changes in intermodal transportation, putting more emphasis on water and rail. And that's driving the creation of more intermodal facilities.

Aug/Sep 08
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Intermodal Port Improvements
Up and down the East Coast and across the Southeast, numerous expansion projects are boosting capacity at port facilities. In Jacksonville, Florida, for example, a 160-acre container terminal is in the works. Two Asian shipping giants have major plans in Jacksonville, and their growth is expected to help the triple boost its container traffic by 2011.

Meanwhile in Virginia, state officials are exploring ways to pay for port expansion projects that are in the cards, and have discussed privatization as an option. Farther north in New Jersey and New York, the next decade will see nearly $2 billion in infrastructure projects, including upgrades at marine terminal facilities and the roads and railways leading to port facilities.

In Texas, port officials are looking ahead to Panama Canal expansion and exploring expansion options of their own, with the knowledge that what happens in the Canal Zone will ultimately boost the need for container handling capacity in Texas. Similar discussions have happened in such places as Savannah, another port that could see increased volumes when Panama clears the way for larger ships to pass through - as many as a third of the world's container vessels are too big to clear the canal right now. Savannah had a record-breaking year in 2007 and has a $1.2 billion capital plan in the works, with an intermodal container facility one of the first projects on the list.

The West Coast has plenty of projects of its own, according to Sherry. For example, there are ongoing efforts to improve efficiency along the Alameda Corridor that serves the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which are the nation's top two ports, according to statistics from the American Association of Port Authorities. In all, more than $13 billion worth of projects are planned in the next decade or so to keep up with the increasing cargo demands at the incredibly busy ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Projects range from channel deepening to new intermodal facilities to terminal expansions to road and rail improvements.

Capacity upgrades are in the works in and around the Port of Tacoma in Washington, says Sherry. Seattle's port is busy as well, and goods often must be trucked to offsite staging areas. The region is working to speed that traffic along. "The ideal is to have on-dock rail, but it takes a major investment and takes a long time to do," says Sherry. Among other improvements, the port is investing $5.5 million to upgrade trucking connections between terminal facilities and the highways outside the port.

At the far north end of the West Coast, the Port of Anchorage continues a major intermodal expansion project. The long-term, multifaceted project includes road and rail improvements to improve cargo flow, as well as marine terminal redevelopments designed to improve crane reach and expand commercial dock space. Work to fill in acres of tidelands to add space began in 2006.

Given the forces of fuel, the dollar, and increasing demand, there are infrastructure needs all over. "Clearly the West Coast, Chicago, and to some extent the Southeast - those areas are seeing increased need for additional infrastructure," says Sherry.

The Human Infrastructure
It isn't just rails and switches and cranes that needs attention, though. "Another thing that concerns me is our competitiveness in terms of our human capital," says Sherry, noting that there's a significant difference in productivity between American ports and those elsewhere. "Our productivity is not as high as that of our Asian counterparts."

Not all of that can be attributed to physical infrastructure. "We've got to look at the people who are doing our jobs as well as the equipment that we have to move containers on and off ships," says Sherry. It's a situation that is threatened by the pending retirement of a lot of the work force. An urgent need is more training. "Very few universities are actually training people in intermodal transportation and logistics at the same time," he says. "One thing we're focusing on is ensuring that we have competitive human capital."

Martinko points out that the current softness in automotive manufacturing could provide part of the solution to the work force needs of intermodal transportation. "You can trade off one industry's downturn," he says.

All in all, the intermodal transportation sector will need all the ingenuity it can get to deal with the challenges and opportunities of the coming years. "A lot of unconventional opportunities are opening up due to the volume of shipping," says Martinko. "It's ripe for creativity right now. A lot of ideas are being put together because of the economic times."

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