? Houg: Freight counts for Colorado

Author: Jenyce Houg - October 25, 2016 - Updated: October 23, 2016

Jenyce Houg
Jenyce Houg

When you visit the grocery store and see a wide variety of fresh foods from across our country and even the world on the shelves, turn up your air conditioning, or have a friend receive an overnight shipment of a special drug for a life-threatening illness, you are encountering the world of freight movement. It’s important to recognize this interaction as we further progress in a fast-paced internet and digital driven society. Rather than waiting for a product to come to our local store, we click on a product online and expect it to be delivered to our home in a few days, if not the next day. These changes in business and our society have been rapid and, fortunately for us, our freight industry — the most efficient and effective network in the world — has responded to meet these new demands.

Few of us have an opportunity to actually see and fully understand how goods move from farm to market or from manufacturer to store or even from an internet seller to you directly. This logistics process occurs behind the scenes and works seamlessly each day. In the case of our food supply, trucks and trains bring fresh produce and food from across the country to our grocery stores daily. In regard to our heating and air conditioning needs, these amenities are available because of an electrical grid powered by natural gas and coal, which is transported by rail or pipeline to our power companies. As to emergency medical supplies, our air freight industry transports products on short notice to far flung areas of our country daily.

The only time many of us even recognize the importance of our freight system is when a package or shipment arrives late. To the credit of the freight industry, these delays tend to be uncommon.

To support the needs of our society takes millions of men and women in the freight industry who work tirelessly 24/7 and 365 days a year. The freight industry is the “glue” that holds our economy together, and if there is even a short disruption due to weather or a natural disaster, it can spell problems for our businesses, manufacturers, farmers and you. For example, hospitals need replenishment of medical and food supplies within 24 hours, many grocery stores require daily deliveries to meet their customers’ needs, and busy gas stations have a mere 48-hour supply of fuel. If for some reason, trucks can’t reach those locations for several days, serious shortages may occur and it’s only then that many of us recognize the importance of our freight system to our lives.

Unfortunately, most of the public is unfamiliar with the freight industry and its impact in our everyday lives. In many cases the public’s experience with trucks or trains is a frustrating one as they may be behind a slow moving truck or stuck waiting at a grade crossing as a train passes. Many, who are delayed, wonder “why can’t these vehicles travel at another time.” Unbeknownst to most people, these same trucks and trains have transported at one point everything that we have in our homes and offices and allow us to have the lifestyle that we enjoy today.

A misconception with the freight industry is our safety record. Accidents in the freight industry get a lot of attention because such events involve large vehicles and affect traffic and other activities. In addition, because we are in a 24-hour news cycle, these accidents get instant and prominent coverage. This has led some to question the safety of this sector. The fact is that the freight industry’s safety record is a stellar one. The truck-involved fatal crash rate has dropped by 74 percent since 1980, while the rail industry has witnessed a 45 percent reduction in rail accidents since 2005. The vast majority of these accidents are not their fault but rather others. Further, the reductions in accident rates aren’t due to luck, but rather a concerted effort on the freight industry’s part in concert with our partners at the federal and state level to improve safety.

While our freight system is still the best in the world, it is fragile and under pressure. Our highway and rail infrastructure is aging and in need of repair or replacement. Many key corridors are congested and capacity improvements, whether additional highway lanes or double tracking a rail line, may be needed.

For many years, there has been little attention by our government to our freight network and its needs. As we have moved into a more global economy, this is changing. It’s become apparent to government policymakers that if our growing country wishes to compete on an international level. We must have a transportation network that can move goods and people expeditiously and safely across our country.

As an acknowledgment of the importance of freight, the federal government in the recently passed transportation bill (FAST Act) specifically allocated funds for freight projects and planning. On a state level, the Colorado Department of Transportation has taken the lead on addressing this critical issue. CDOT created the Colorado Freight Advisory Council (FAC) which is a cross section of private freight interests and public sector officials. The FAC’s role is to identify strategies and programs to address Colorado’s current and future freight needs. The FAC and the greater focus on freight offers a great opportunity for Colorado to get ahead of the curve and develop a freight network that will allow our state better to compete in the future on a national and international level while balancing this program with other public interests.

Jenyce Houg

Jenyce Houg is chair of the Colorado Freight Advisory Council, which is made up of representatives from the freight industry along with state and local public officials. She is also a vice president for Celadon Corporation which is one of the largest trucking companies in the U.S.