Trucks, trains, ships and pipelines | Don Brunell

All too often our network of highways, pipelines, railroads, barges, ship terminals and airports goes unnoticed unless there is an accident.

All too often our network of highways, pipelines, railroads, barges, ship terminals and airports goes unnoticed unless there is an accident.

For example, we don’t notice the trains delivering the chlorine that purifies our drinking water.  We pay little attention to the trucks transporting gasoline for our cars and propane tanks for backyard barbecues.  The fact is without trucks, trains, pipelines, barges, ships and airplanes, we couldn’t survive.

They transport everything we use every day and some products are potentially dangerous. Thankfully, shippers must abide by hundreds of federal, state and local safety regulations. Enforcement of those rules helps protect us and well-trained first responders save us.

Each year the U.S. Dept. of Transportation publishes information on shipments across America.  In 2012 that network moved about 54 million tons of freight each day, worth nearly $48 billion.  Half of these goods are moved close to home, transported less than 100 miles.

Trucks are the workhorses in our system.  Short-haul truckers move 84 percent of goods transported less than 100 miles and long-haul truckers carry 34 percent of freight transported more than 2,000 miles.   Railroads dominate mid-range shipments, from 750 to 2,000 miles.

For Washington, a viable transportation network is crucial because our economy depends on international trade.  In fact, our state has the highest per capita trade-related income of all 50 states.

So what’s the problem?

We need to upgrade our state’s highways and roads.  We have traditionally relied on the gas tax to fund this work, but as cars become more fuel-efficient and electric cars become more popular, drivers are buying less gasoline.  As a consequence, the gas tax is no longer producing enough revenue to fund the highway system.

Building and maintaining highways, bridges and transit systems is extremely expensive.  Lawmakers are wrestling with a variety of funding options, including tolls, taxes, fees and regulatory reforms. Unfortunately, it does not appear Congress or our state legislature will pass a transportation funding package this year, or even next.

Contrast that uncertainty to the Burlington-Northern Santa Fe Railroad, which has invested $42 billion since 2000 to improve infrastructure, equipment, technology and emergency response training, including a record $4 billion last year.  BNSF plans to invest a record $5 billion in 2014.

BNSF understands that its future depends on upgrading its transportation network and operations.  The same is true for our state and our roads.

Unfortunately, waning revenues and legislative wrangling aren’t the only problems affecting our transportation network.

Some fossil fuel opponents are attacking anything and everything related to the production and delivery of fossil fuel.  As part of that agenda, they want to stop rail shipments of oil and coal, block construction of export terminals and stop expansion of the Keystone Pipeline.    The activists’ most recent target in Washington is the trains that would carry low-sulfur coal from Wyoming to proposed export terminals on the Washington coast.   They claim that rail traffic is unsafe. Not true!

The truth is that rail transportation is the safest, most cost-efficient and environmentally sound way – by far – to move freight.  It is approximately four times more fuel-efficient to move freight by rail than by truck, and moving hazardous material by rail is 16 times safer than moving it on the roads.

Ironically, if the activists get their way, they will be pushing tons of hazardous freight onto our over-crowded highways.  How will that make us safer?

While we need to ensure that goods are moved safely, the point is that everything we eat, wear and use must move from where it’s produced to where it’s sold.  That is just a fact of life.

Don Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at

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