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Summit Emphasizes Need for Transportation Connections

by Fred D. Baldwin

Leaders from all levels of government and from private business and academia gathered to discuss the importance of linking Appalachia's transportation systems at a summit meeting co-sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) May 17–18, 1999, in Lexington, Kentucky.

Speakers at the Appalachian Intermodal Transportation Summit, which drew approximately 300 attendees, emphasized two points: first, that all of the Appalachian Region will need a diversified and tightly interconnected transportation network, and second, that the work of providing adequate highways is still incomplete for some of the Region's inner core. Panels examined the economic benefits of intermodal transportation, assessed Appalachia's existing transportation assets and liabilities, and described how four Appalachian communities are successfully expanding their transportation capabilities.

National and state political leaders present included Rodney E. Slater, U.S. secretary of transportation; Paul E. Patton, governor of Kentucky; Cecil H. Underwood, governor of West Virginia and ARC's 1999 states' co-chairman; Congressmen Harold "Hal" Rogers and Ernie Fletcher, representing Kentucky's Fifth and Sixth Districts, respectively; and Jesse L. White Jr., ARC federal co-chairman.

"We are gathered here," Representative Rogers said, "to talk not only of roads but of trains, buses, and airplanes. The premise of this conference is that the wealth of our region will depend on all these modes. 'Intermodalism' is the bureaucratic word for linkage."

Secretary Slater, the conference keynote speaker, stressed the high return on investment in highways but noted that access to intercity transit does not exist for 38 percent of rural residents and is negligible for another 28 percent.

"Our challenge is to find ways to connect rural areas to areas around the country," he said. "The stubborn pockets of poverty must be included at America's table of opportunity."

White, after crediting Slater with the initiative for planning the conference, also emphasized the importance of completing the Appalachian Development Highway System (ADHS). He added that Appalachian success stories should not be allowed to obscure the needs of distressed counties. At the conference's final session, he announced that ARC will commit $400,000 to assist communities with transportation planning grants, giving preference to projects that serve distressed areas and that include strong private sector support.

Governor Patton reminded attendees that highways remain the backbone of any Appalachian transportation system. He strongly urged the approval of a proposed Interstate 66 project, conceived as an east-west route through southern Kentucky. "This highway," he said, "would take Appalachia off the back porch of the nation and put it on the front porch."

Governor Underwood and Representative Fletcher made similar comments. "It's important to focus on the next steps," Governor Underwood added. "We need to interconnect the highways with all the elements of the system—rail, barges, and cars."

Jim Coyne, representing the National Air Transportation Association, said, "The development of the Internet has been the greatest spur to the growth of aviation. The business leaders of America get up and go, and they take their offices with them. Don't forget the airport as part of your planning."

The conference sessions, a series of four, began with a global perspective and concluded with case studies.

Economic Benefits of Intermodal Transportation: Global and National Perspectives

Moderator: Eugene A. Conti Jr., assistant secretary for transportation policy, DOT.

Presenters: Clyde J. Hart Jr., administrator, U.S. Maritime Administration; Craig R. Lentzsch, president and CEO, Greyhound Lines, Inc.; Thomas H. Weidemeyer, senior vice president of transportation operations, United Parcel Service (UPS), and president, UPS Airlines; and Amy K. Glasmeier, professor of regional planning and geography, Pennsylvania State University.

All of the private sector panelists emphasized how fast the world of commerce changes and the flexibility needed to respond to change. Hart noted that the nation's total transportation volume is expected to double by 2020. Businesses, he said, will be looking for whatever combination of modes that will enable them to move goods and people quickly.

Lentzsch agreed, noting that the public sector's regulatory and planning structures will need to adapt as well. "In the past," he said, "every form of transportation went its own way. We have maritime administrations, railroad commissions, and highway authorities. [But] . . . this is a business based on connections. Better service produces growth and reduces cost."

Weidemeyer was the first of several speakers to comment that the explosive growth of the Internet increases the importance of good physical transport networks for getting products to market. He noted that a Fortune 250 company like Gateway can grow within a small town in a rural area as long as it can get its products to customers fast. "Does anyone know where they are located?" he asked. "Does it matter? Geographic boundaries have no future in commerce." (Gateway is based in North Sioux City, South Dakota, but it employs 19,000 people worldwide.)

Glasmeier closed the session by identifying three major trends affecting Appalachia: globalization (worldwide opportunities but also worldwide competition), demographics (the increasing necessity of targeting niche markets—e.g., elderly people with special interests), and the information economy. She gave special emphasis to twofold difficulties facing distressed counties: failure to complete the ADHS has left them physically isolated, and their residents are the least well equipped by their educational institutions to take advantage of information technology.

Her comments drew a sympathetic response from ARC Federal Co-Chairman White: "Even though this is a transportation summit, it is placed in the larger context of social and human infrastructure problems." White mentioned ARC initiatives in leadership development, Internet access, and, more recently, entrepreneurship, adding, "We're trying our best to address these other pieces of the puzzle at the same time."

Intermodal Transportation in Rural America: The Challenges for Rural Areas and Small Towns

Moderator: Harry Caldwell, chief of intermodal freight, Federal Highway Administration.

Presenters: Bob Robinson, executive director, Tishomingo County(Mississippi) Development Foundation; Jerry Nagel, president, Red River Trade Council (representing several states and a Canadian province); Aurelia Jones-Taylor, CEO, Aaron E. Henry Community Health Services Center (Mississippi); and Michael J. Ogborn, managing director, OmniTRAX, Inc. (one of the largest private operators of short-line railroads in North America).

"There's a time for competition and a time to work together," Robinson began. He described projections of immensely increased trade with Latin America, expected to increase by a factor of five or more within a few years. That volume of trade cannot continue to flow through Florida alone, a fact that creates opportunities for Appalachian areas willing to cooperate in regional planning and creative public-private partnerships.

Nagel urged planners to consider three kinds of potential advantages on which areas seeking development may capitalize: comparative advantage, based on resources; competitive advantage, based on technology; and collaborative advantage, based on ability to work together. Collaborative planning, he said, is an absolute necessity because of the need to invest today in infrastructure whose full benefits may take years to materialize.

Jones-Taylor outlined the payoffs from cooperation and coordination. She described how a particular problem—the difficulty of getting patients in low-income Mississippi Delta counties to doctors—led to an expanding transportation network. Beginning with two minivans in 1990, she and her colleagues were able to persuade many agencies to pool resources. Today, the Delta Area Rural Transit System operates 30 vehicles serving a seven-county area.

Ogborn explained that many short-haul rail lines offer major opportunities for public-private partnerships. His company, he said, operates about 400 locomotives (most of them 30 to 40 years old) within ten states and three Canadian provinces. After citing statistics showing explosive growth in freight traffic, he called attention to some 800 real-estate leases involving land on or along OmniTRAX rights-of-way. He summed up his company's view of the potential value of such property along short-haul rail lines like this: "It's not just a ribbon of steel between two points. We look at what's on either side of the tracks—what can be developed." Communities and regional authorities should also be able to spot many alternatives to abandoning old lines, from tourism to spur lines for plants. "There are," he said, "other opportunities ready to be picked off low branches."

An Assessment of Intermodal Transportation Systems in the Appalachian Region

Moderator: Thomas M. Hunter, executive director, ARC.
Presenter: Robert Zuelsdorf, president and CEO, Wilbur Smith Associates.
Responders: James C. Codell III, secretary of transportation, Commonwealth of Kentucky; Nick Ardillo, executive director, Golden Triangle Regional Airport; and Ron Eller, associate professor of history, University of Kentucky.

Zuelsdorf summarized an inventory of Appalachia's transportation resources, prepared for ARC. The ADHS has been an economic success, he reported, and its completion should have high priority. Intercity bus service has tended to deteriorate, and despite two major railroads, many branch rail lines are abandoned or inadequately maintained. On the plus side, waterways are already more important than may be generally realized and likely to be more important in the future. The Appalachian inland waterway system includes over 1,500 miles of navigable rivers and almost 700 private and public port terminals.

"Transportation is no longer just access to isolated areas," Zuelsdorf said. "Today the issue is global competition. We need to think globally."

Codell described an intermodal facilities directory for Kentucky and talked about design work toward the proposed Interstate 66 project. Stressing the importance of completing the ADHS, he cautioned that the system's final 48 miles in Kentucky could cost approximately as much as the first 300 miles did.

Ardillo, himself a pilot, acknowledged that "airplanes and mountains are not natural allies." Nevertheless, he contended that the growth of just-in-time manufacturing and production cycles would require more attention to air transport across Appalachia. Referring to his regional airport serving three eastern Mississippi communities, he said, "I'm convinced that we'd have no service if these people had not developed a regional concept. And the concept has taken hold in other areas, like landfills."

Eller struck a cautionary note. "Generalizations about the Region as a whole," he said, "can obscure some of the diversity of conditions and needs. There's always been a difference between the periphery of Appalachia and the interior core."

Eller displayed the results when transparencies showing various transportation modes are overlaid upon each other. On the periphery of Appalachia, lines showing roads, railways, and bus and air routes combine to form a relatively dense web, but leave nearly blank spaces near the Region's core.

Far from being inevitable, Eller said, Central Appalachia's relative isolation is attributable in large part to governmental decisions that have supported improved services for densely populated areas over development in sparsely populated areas. He urged policy makers not only to complete the ADHS but to start planning for a second layer of highways. Dueto surface mining, he noted, many Central Appalachian counties have sizeable tracts of flat land but no access roads that reach them. He also urged policy makers to recognize that short-line railroads can be a major asset in tourism, and to pay more attention to improving water quality and to providing access to streams.

Intermodal Transportation Systems in Appalachia: Case Studies

Moderator: Samuel G. Bonasso, secretary, West Virginia Department of Transportation.
Presenters: Ron Hamby, director, International Intermodal Center, Huntsville–Madison County Airport Authority; Jeff Stover, director, SEDA-COG Joint Rail Authority; James E. Seney, transportation liaison, Ohio Department of Development; and Ron Littlefield, special planning consultant to the City of Chattanooga.

Hamby described how the Port of Huntsville, in Alabama, functions as an inland port for the Tennessee Valley Region, combining air, rail, and truck services at one location, and providing an industrial park, a foreign trade zone, and on-site U.S. Customs services. The Huntsville International Airport provides air services to over one million passengers and more than 50,000 tons of cargo each year, and the 1,700-acre Jetplex Industrial Park provides facilities for major companies such as Boeing and Raytheon.

Supported initially with funding from ARC, the center connects with two interstate highways and the Norfolk Southern railway. Airport tenants and nearby businesses employ nearly 15,000 workers, with a combined payroll of $600 million. A 1996 study found that these jobs and the spending associated with them created a multiplied regional impact of 28,000 jobs and over $970 million in total payrolls.

Stover described how the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and many other public and private partners helped to prevent an 80-mile stretch of lines connecting two major rail lines from becoming "two sticks of rust in the weeds." Entities across central Pennsylvania pulled together to form a Joint Rail Authority (JRA) that has maintained and expanded rail freight service. Managed by the SEDA–Council of Governments, the JRA has acquired 192 miles of rail lines targeted for abandonment. This saved an estimated 3,000 jobs and created 2,000 new ones. Stover credited an ARC planning grant with creating momentum: "ARC was the first in. It turned us around from 'Save us!' to 'We'll save ourselves!' "

"Ohio is a platform," Seney announced. "We have to be able to move information, cargo, and people around the globe."

Recently, the state adopted a new comprehensive transportation plan called Access Ohio that seeks to assess and upgrade all facets of the state's transportation systems, including those in the 29 counties of Appalachian Ohio. The potential for increased water transport is immense, Seney said; already more tonnage moves along the Ohio River than along the Danube or through the Panama Canal.

Littlefield concluded the panel presentations with a description of a project still in the planning stages, the Chattanooga-Atlanta High-Speed Rail Corridor between Atlanta and Chattanooga. The two cities, 100 miles apart, have begun exploring linking their downtowns and their airports with a new high-speed rail passenger service along the Interstate 75 corridor.

"We've had a lengthy love-hate relationship with Atlanta over the years," Littlefield admitted. "But it's not important that two communities be twin cities or equals. Atlanta's problems equal Chattanooga's opportunities. And you can turn that around. We've learned that we can spawn new grassroots leadership, and we can find boundary crossers."

Closing Session

ARC Federal Co-Chairman White closed the conference with the announcement of ARC's commitment to intermodal transportation planning grants and again placing intermodal transport issues into a broad social and economic context. He commented that he found it "both exhilarating and disheartening" to hear how the Internet will open opportunities to small communities but leave still farther behind those areas with poor educational opportunities and poor transport systems.

"We've got to get our communities to start thinking regionally," he concluded. "If we can do that, we can make them competitive in a global market. If not, it'll be another technical breakthrough that widens the gap between haves and have-nots."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.