How We Can Save America

by Larkin Vonalt

(And ourselves in the process.)

Driving down I-75 in the rain tonight, we find ourselves grousing, again, about having to share the highway with long-haul truckers.  Even the apologists at admit that there are half a million accidents on US  highways every year involving tractor trailers. They would like us to believe that 75 percent of these are the fault of the driver of the car, but anyone who has been on an interstate highway probably has some other ideas about that particular statistic.

If you want to see the real toll of trucking, google “big rig + killed” or  “tractor trailer death.” Is there a driver in America that has not passed the scene of a tractor-trailer fatality at least once? Last summer I sat on an interstate in South Carolina for three hours while they cleaned up an accident that killed two big rig drivers and a guy in a pick-up.

Some states mandate a slower speed limit for tractor-trailers, but realistically, those are only effective when there’s a cop in the median, and sometimes not even then. Many companies keep drivers on a strict and unrealistic schedule (because time is always money) and drivers are forced to push the speedometer just to keep their jobs. The average truck driver makes about $32,000 a year and it is a grueling life.

Though the trucking industry is quick to point out the amount they pay in over-the-road taxes, everyone who uses un-dyed diesel fuel pays the same tax. I used to pay that extra tax to drive my 1984 diesel Volkswagen Rabbit, but these enormously heavy trucks really exact an astounding toll in wear and tear on US highways.

At an average of 5.3 mpg and a carbon dioxide emission of  22.4 pounds per gallon of diesel fuel consumed, makes the carbon footprint of the more than two million tractor trailers in the US pretty significant.

Surely there must be a better way.

Of course there is. And the answer is  . . .  to ship freight (and maybe people as well) via rail and water.

Before the Greek Chorus starts up, I am fully aware of the state of American railroads. That’s part of the plan. When I first started talking about the better way to move freight and all of its attendant benefits, I used to begin by saying “If I was Warren Buffet, I would  . . . ” and it is worth noting that last spring Warren Buffet bought the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, the second largest railroad in the country. Maybe he was listening.

A locomotive can move a ton of freight 430 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel.

Go ahead, read it again. Read it out loud. The carbon emissions for trains per ton-mile is the least of any sort of freight handling and one-tenth that of trucks.

Yes, the railroad system in this country is abandoned, decrepit, and not nearly as extensive as it was 100 years ago. But that can be fixed. It is almost too late, but if we act quickly, we can recreate a glorious railway empire, create jobs, make a greener environment and save ourselves.

In the current economic doldrums, there has been talk in Washington of restoring and rebuilding infrastructure, both because it’s necessary and because the country could really use a modern day WPA program. It worked for FDR and it can work again.

By starting with freight handling, and the restoration of the rail system to change the mode by which we move America, we give this notion of a new Works Project Administration a focus, and a place to start. Laying track, building depots, designing computer systems, building and maintaining locomotives and freight cars– that all spells JOBS. Not just part time, unskilled labor jobs, (though there would be some of those too) but a lifetime career, if one should so desire. Implementing navigable waterways into this means jobs in ports, jobs in shipyards, jobs in warehousing. There would be still room for some trucking- mostly short haul, specializing in getting goods to the rails and to the ports. Truckers could sleep at home at night in their own beds rather than in the cab of their truck along some interstate rest stop.

Everything can be and has been moved on the railroad. Livestock, airplanes, automobiles, milk, oil, grain, coal, manufactured goods– and people. With a reconfigured railroad, we can once again look at moving people by rail. It’s more restful than flying (albeit slower) and it’s more efficient, and certainly greener than driving yourself.

Highways would not require the maintenance they currently demand, because fewer trucks means less wear. The materials used to make big rigs can be recycled into ships, containers, box cars. Architects get work designing depots, construction workers find work building them. Manufacturers enjoy less expensive shipping costs. Air pollution drops, employment is up. The number of tractor-trailer accidents would dwindle, meaning less expense due to medical care, less mayhem on the highways, and less heartbreak for the families.

It could be done. It wouldn’t be cheap, but it would pay for itself over the long haul, and in the end we would have something to be proud of– unlike, say, a war. One ton of freight moved 430 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel. Warren Buffet is in. Are you?