Thursday, April 7, 2011

From the Not-Surprising-At-All Department: GAO Concludes that Trucking Is the Least Efficient Mode of Freight Shipping

I did a lot of work on transportation and infrastructure in grad school, so I am not surprised at all by the GAO's findings, as summarized by
Freight transportation, which accounts for nearly a quarter of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, doesn’t get as much attention as passenger transportation because most people don’t feel it affects them as much. But more than 15 million trucks deliver 70 percent of the goods this country consumes – and the GAO says that’s a mistake.
The Government Accountability Office published a study finding that the costs of freight trucking that are not passed on to the consumer are at least six times greater than the equivalent rail costs and at least nine times greater than the equivalent waterways costs. Many of those are externalized costs passed on to society – like congestion, pollution, and crashes – as well as public costs, like infrastructure maintenance.
Basically, the government has made shipping via truck too cheap - mainly by providing these things called "roads" and "highways" that trucking companies only have to pay a nominal fee to use (unlike train companies, which must pay 100% of the cost of their tracks) - and thereby causing distortions and inefficiencies in the shipping industry. Since this has been going on so long, there's no easy fix, and the GAO did not stick their necks out and make actual policy recommendations in this report. Nevertheless,
[the GAO] did say that policy changes that make prices align with the true costs of freight shipping would provide a great economic benefit. Less targeted changes, like charging user fees, subsidizing more efficient alternatives, or applying safety or emissions regulations – could be helpful as well. The report acknowledges that “the current configuration of transportation infrastructure can limit the shifting of freight among modes.”
The only problem being that we continue to build a lot more highways than railroads ....

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