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Published: Friday, 10/18/2002

What about the railroads?

The forecast for a 58 percent increase in truck traffic on Ohio's highways over the next 18 years is grim news for anyone who frequents I-75, U.S. 23, or the Ohio Turnpike in a car. Motorists dodging the relentless caravans of 18-wheelers know it's already pretty scary out there.

The prediction, by a consultant to the Ohio Department of Transportation, also highlights the economic danger of what still is pretty much a one-dimensional system of moving goods and materials for business and industry from one place to another.

Trucks haul 60 percent by weight of all the freight shipped or received by Ohio businesses, some 566 million tons each year. And freight volume is expected to double over the next 20 years.

Increasing reliance on trucks boosts the pressure on the state to keep pace in maintaining its highway system. That's fine; everybody wants good roads, and improvements, such as reducing traffic bottlenecks, are largely paid for by the users through fuel and license taxes.

But the prospect for a huge overall expansion of the highway system is doubtful. So what about bolstering the use of railroads to ease the pressure on highways?

To its credit, ODOT's consultant, Cambridge Systematics, Inc., recommends “specific attention” to “retaining and expanding rail freight service” in Ohio.

James Seney, the former Sylvania mayor who now runs the Ohio Rail Development Commission, predicts “an enormous impact, a negative impact, on urban areas and on Ohio in general” if rail shipping isn't expanded.

But to do so would require a long overdue shift in focus and priorities for the state government agency many still call “the highway department.” If ODOT officials don't undertake a significant effort now to improve rail-freight capabilities, Ohioans will regret it deeply over the next two decades.

Not only will our economic prospects be limited but trucks will clog the highways way beyond the imagination of motorists today.

Trucks, the consultant noted, are disproportionately rough on highways and highway congestion. A truck loaded to the 80,000 pound legal limit accounts for as much wear and tear as 9,000 to 10,000 cars. And a large truck causes as much congestion as two to three cars on a level road and as much as 15 cars on an uphill grade.

Because much of it was laid out in the pre-highway era, the railroad system doesn't go everywhere roads do, giving trucks the competitive edge when it comes to hauling freight. Thus transportation planners will need to emphasize development of so-called “intermodal” systems that combine trucks and trains.

Trucks are vital to our economy but there is only so much room on Ohio's highways. A lot of motorists would say we've reached capacity already.

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