The Interstate 95 conundrum

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, December 1, 2012

I spent much of this week watching trains on the CSX North End Subdivision, between Richmond, Va., and Rocky Mount, N.C. Usually, you can count on spotting on this heavily trafficked, mostly single-track line the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, their names being Hunger, Death, Pestilence, and Unexpected Delays. But they and their black stallions were nowhere to be seen this time. The North End Sub operated like a well cleaned watch, the dispatchers seemingly trained by Peter Josserand (Rights of Trains, 1945), or maybe the fictional Eddy Sand (The Boomer, 1942).

No, what’s different about the North End Sub this trip is local politics. Every front yard — even the water tower in sleepy Stony Creek — seems to spout a sign, NO TOLLS. Virginia’s governor, Bob McDonnell, is proposing to turn Interstate 95, the Maine-to-Florida highway, into a toll road through his state, as is already the case north of Virginia. A similar proposal is being debated in North Carolina.

Two things are immediately apparent. First, the idea is immensely unpopular in Southside Virginia, one of the poorer parts of the state. It’s as of British redcoats had returned. Second, the state has an expensive road to maintain and expand, but not the money to do so. Something has to give, in other words. To put it in concrete terms, Virginia projects the need for $12.1 billion to maintain and enlarge the busy highway over the next quarter century, but can expect only $2.5 billion in funding.

This is the whole interstate highway problem in microcosm. Our interstates are crowded and crumbling, and we lack the money to maintain and expand them.

Of course, Interstate 95 has a competitor from New Jersey to Florida: CSX. The railroad takes no position in the toll proposal, perhaps wisely. Clearly, it’s to the advantage of CSX to block tolls and starve the highway. By the way, that’s the likely outcome. It is politically possible to finance new limited-access highways with tolls. But I can think of few roads (actually, none at all) that were built as freeways and later turned into toll roads.

On the other hand, why isn’t CSX exploiting its crumbling competitor? Driving home to suburban Washington, D.C., traffic in the opposite direction south of the capitol city grinds to a standstill. Trucks seem to occupy half of the space — hundreds, thousands of them.

The answer, unfortunately, is that CSX does a poor job capturing this highway traffic. It does best going wooing trucks that ply I-95 the entire distance to and from Florida, which describes but a fraction of the traffic. It is poorly equipped to market intermediate origins and destinations.

CSX is not alone in this. Railroads as a whole are best in dealing with the J.B. Hunt Transports and Schneider Nationals of the trucking world over the highest-volume, longest-distance routes. But institutionally, they all seem to lack the ability to pick at the smaller origin-destination pairs and to reach out to the smaller truck lines. To put it another way, the huge Class I railroads are no damn good at all retailing. Wholesaling is what they know.

This I do know: It would be tragic for this nation to have the worst of all worlds, that is, crumbling, overcrowded highways and railroads unable or unwilling to taking advantage of that opportunity. There has got to be a better way to go at this. — Fred W. Frailey

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