Port Authority Chief Calls for Green Overhaul of Region’s Freight System

CarGoTram.jpgPort Authority exec Chris Ward pointed to Dresden’s CarGoTram as a sustainable freight mover that the region could learn from. Image: Wikimedia.

In a region where passenger transportation is being reimagined, freight needs to catch up. That’s the message Chris Ward, the executive director of the Port Authority, delivered in a "call to arms" at Baruch College this morning. After outlining the importance and challenges of moving freight, Ward put forward the beginning of a plan to rationalize cargo movement, calling for a combination of new infrastructure, new pricing schemes, and centralized distribution centers scattered across the New York region. 

Ward’s speech marked the release of the Port Authority’s report "Freight and the Region’s Future," a preliminary document that is part of a multi-year analysis of goods movement. But before Ward began to offer solutions, he impressed upon the crowd the urgency of the problem, which he called "likely the number one economic challenge facing this region." 

Freight feeds the region, both economically and literally; one quarter of all trucks crossing the Hudson east are carrying food. But that lifeline is being choked by the region’s own prosperity, argued Ward. In the next 25 years, he said, truck loads are expected to grow by 39 percent and vehicle hours of delay by 57 percent. In contrast, population and employment are expected to grow 15 and 19 percent, respectively. The region will need to shed that economic dead weight in order to continue to prosper, Ward argued.

What’s more, freight movement uses some of the dirtiest vehicles on the road. Calling air pollution a "public health crisis," Ward wondered why "we tend to disassociate it from goods movement." Any discussion of emissions or sustainability needs to include freight.

Part of the solution is rail. That may include the cross-harbor freight tunnel, said Ward, but he highlighted a number of other suggestions. For example, Ward noted that the LIRR’s stalled third track project could allow Long Island’s rail system to accommodate both passengers and freight. He sees cross-harbor railcar floats as another way to link New Jersey and Brooklyn.

Unfortunately, argued Ward, rail can only do so much. Half of the trucks on the region’s roads travel less than 78 miles, and a full 80 percent travel less than 222 miles. With rail currently cost-competitive only at 400 mile journeys, something needs to be done to improve our trucking system.

Ward’s solution, which he called the "deconsolidation model," relies on creating distribution centers. Comparing the idea to the invention of ZIP codes by the Postal Service, Ward explained that all goods sent to a given geographic area would have to pass through a local distribution center. From there, a single distribution company, which would bid for the franchise, would deliver the goods to surrounding neighborhoods. 

What this would allow, according to Ward, is better integration of long-haul transport modes with smaller, cleaner vehicles better suited for local distribution. "That supply chain last mile is where we’re really experiencing the environmental degradation," said Ward. Whether electric trucks, as were just introduced at the Hunts Point distribution center, or even bikes in some cases, clean technology could be introduced to the freight transportation system.

To ensure that the distribution centers help clean up the region’s streets, rather than simply centralize air pollution as happens at Hunts Point, Ward called for new transportation pricing. "I think pricing the fuels should be number one, number two, number three, number four," said Ward. "It’s a national disgrace" that we don’t tax fuel higher, he continued, "and not just in terms of what’s happened in the Gulf." He also sees road pricing as a potential solution. "We’re all going to have to pay for this in some way," he said. 

For some livable streets advocates, Ward’s most provocative comments may have been his remarks on passenger transportation. "The city is remaking itself along lines that squeeze out freight," he said, flashing images of bike lanes, greenways, and Amtrak’s Acela train. Ward was careful to note that he doesn’t oppose those particular moves toward a more sustainable passenger transportation system. Rather, he said, as innovation speeds along in passenger transport, freight opportunities are being overlooked, and in some cases blocked. "I’m afraid the decisions we make today," Ward explained, "will preclude the system we know we need." 

  • Larry Littlefield

    There would be plenty of room on the highways for freight if it were not for all the cars.

    What if Access to the Region’s core is thought of as an alternative to the freight tunnel? The people will ride the rails across the Hudson. That would free up space on the roads for dedicated freight lanes to go with the dedicated car lanes (parkways) and HOV lanes.

    Everything takes less space than private motor vehicles. Repurposing just a small portion of that space for something else, as is being done for bicycles, is more realistic than creating a whole new infrastructure in a bankrupt country.

  • Bolwerk

    It would be nice to look at freight through Penn Station. Much of the night, trucks are backing up the George Washington Bridge, while Penn Station is pretty quiet.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “It would be nice to look at freight through Penn Station.”

    The tunnels aren’t tall enough. A through tunnel option was considered under ARC, and dismissed.

  • I saw one of City Harvest’s cargo bikes yesterday.

  • Skyline Stories

    Is there a PDF of the report “Freight and the Region’s Future” available online? I couldn’t find it on the PA’s Web site, and I’d like to read more about their proposed plans.

  • The Penn Station tunnels are tall enough for single-stacked freight. They’re just not tall enough for double-stacked.

    To run freight through Penn would require creating an all-electric district in the region. It would cost some money, though far less than a Cross-Harbor Tunnel, and could come partly from a passenger rail improvement capital program.

    There’s no need for 100% rail mode share here. Forget freight-trams, which are a solution looking for a problem; the Cross-Harbor Tunnel project aims at a 10% mode share. Electric freight rail, in contrast, is growing in Russia and China as a way of helping rail compete against shipping and trucking.

  • Bolwerk

    Compared to most rail freight alternatives, dual mode locomotives through Penn sounds like a pretty cheap solution – although they would have to exist and come from outside 400 miles, if Ward is to be believed. Single-stacked freight has gone through in the past, although possibly not since WWII.

    Electric freight trams would be great, assuming the following: an electric tram (“light rail”) system, a federal regulatory regime making it possible to mix freight and passengers on said lines, customers who need a high enough volume of freight (maybe as little as is delivered by truck?), freight tram terminals at the PA’s intermodal facilities (meaning a rail tunnel to NJ probably), and loading/unloading sidings along streets. Ideally, FRA regulations would permit mixed operation between the tram lines and FRA rail lines.

    As part of a broader vision, it’s not a bad idea. It might be an especially effective way to haul garbage. It wouldn’t get many trucks off the roads, however, unless both origin and destination are within the boundaries of the system – by no means unusual, if the system encompasses denser parts of NYC, NYC industrial areas, and existing PA port facilities. Nonetheless, it would probably be expensive, and maybe even more environmentally unfriendly, to take truck freight and stick it on the trams for the last ~5mi into NYC. So trucks will be around for a long time.

  • Dual-mode locomotives are actually a terrible idea. Check the axle load on the beasts NJ Transit is ordering. They’ll chew up passenger-dedicated track in no time.

    What I’m talking about is different: switching locomotives somewhere in North Jersey and running through to Long Island and the electrified parts of Connecticut. For anything else, Selkirk is a detour but not a crippling detour, unless New York State goes through with the plans to build a wider Tappan Zee Bridge.

    The problem with electric freight trams is that there are no good regulations for them. This is different from modern passenger rail, for which there are about 15 countries that could provide good standards for the US to crib. A good rule of thumb is that when you’re as backward as the US is, you shouldn’t be trying to invent things.

  • Bolwerk

    Well, terrible or not, they might be the best option for the time being. There already are dual modes running into Penn via every railroad that goes through there, and there might be more if MNRR moves in. I think almost anything chews up the passenger-dedicated track already. FRA buff strength regulations have guaranteed that.

    So far as I know, switching is really a time and money eater right now – I’m not sure if it’s regulatory or union contracts that are the problem. To get to relevant shops, the MTA prefers bringing locos through electric territory down to the city and back up another line (e.g., Hudson Line to Harlem Line) to using the Beacon line, which connects all of the major MNRR services north of the electrified territory. Either way, switching locomotives is stupidly expensive and time-consuming and should probably be avoided for the time being.

    I hadn’t heard that freight would be running over the Tappan Zee – hopefully nothing will prevent it, at least. The tunnel from NJ to Brooklyn might also do some good, but it sounds like NIMBYism could derail it.

    For those who might be interested, the Freight conference is airing on CUNY-TV at the end of July (see schedule).

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