News Article - September 25 2006

Flood of cargo poses challenge for Phila. region
  Regional planners took a hard look at freight moving in the Philadelphia area last week, launching a search for clues on how to prepare for a tsunamilike wave of cargo growth. "A lot of experts are saying the volume of cargo here will double by 2020," said Theodore K. Dahlburg, freight planning manager at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. With 100 million people living within a one-day drive of Philadelphia, transportation and logistics services are widely recognized as important to economic-growth and job-creation opportunities. So preparing for growth is critical to the region's prosperity.

   The rising volume is driven by rising population and the decline of local manufacturing across the nation. Goods critical to individuals and businesses increasingly must travel long distances. This will produce intense competition for large blocks of land. "Distribution sites are getting bigger," said Carl Gersbach, a Berwyn-based managing director for the C.B. Richard Ellis Inc. real estate firm. "There is a tremendous challenge ahead for the U.S. to handle the amount of imports. All of this stuff has to be put somewhere before its gets distributed." The nation's seaports and distribution centers "are not growing as fast as imports," he said.

   To help prepare, 50 planners from the regional planning commission as well as state and local governments visited truck stops, distribution centers, seaport terminals and rail yards. While the planners watched, pineapples from Costa Rica were unloaded at a Camden seaport terminal, railroad locomotives made in Erie were loaded onto a ship in Eddystone, new cars were unloaded from trains in Upper Chichester, 2,149 cases of wine and spirits were delivered to state Liquor Control Board locations in Bucks County, canceled checks from throughout the region were loaded onto aircraft at Philadelphia International Airport, and both dry-cargo and tanker ships were moving up and down the Delaware River. Over the next month, the planners will compare notes and study data from railroads, truck lines, logistics companies and law enforcement. They will present their observations to the regional planning commission, which will identify work that needs to be done and set priorities. Some parts of the growing problem were obvious right away, Dahlburg said.

   There are, for example, far too few places for big trucks to park. Dahlburg and colleague Scott Brady visited every truck stop and rest area in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey. Every place they visited was overflowing and many trucks were parked in risky places along roadways. The problem is getting more serious because new limits on the hours that truckers can drive in a day are being strictly enforced, forcing drivers to park wherever they can when time runs out. And there are too few signs directing big trucks. When a big truck gets lost it can cause problems. "It is hard for a truck pulling a 53-foot trailer to turn around," Dahlburg said.

   The planners also discovered fresh evidence of a problem that has long bedeviled many neighborhoods: the local roads that link major highways with distribution terminals. "We force freight to drop off the interstates and meander through neighborhoods," Dahlburg said. With increased post-9/11 security at cargo terminals, "a poorly designed gate can cause a line of trucks back into residential neighborhoods. This runs counter to our notion that freight movement should be good neighbors. We're not interested in just ramming freight through the region," he said. Dahlburg said the planners also got a glimpse into the future at Rapid Center, the Delaware River Maritime Enterprise Council's cargo management and monitoring operation in South Philadelphia.

   The council was funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the federal government to build the region's military cargo business. During the planning exercise Wednesday, it was coordinating movement of military equipment returning from Iraq for repairs from a Navy ship docked at Packer Avenue Marine Terminal onto three trains and scores of trucks bound for inland facilities. "They gave me a real-time demonstration of how they analyze weather and other factors that have an impact on freight movement, and keep close track of the cargo," Dahlburg said. Knowing the precise location of cargo will become critical to commercial shippers as congestion requires quick decisions to work around problems and avoid wasting capacity, Dahlburg said.

   With freight volume doubling in a dozen years and no room to double the roadways and rail lines, new tracking, planning and management technology will be required to push capacity through the infrastructure that is in place now. Even at today's volume, Dahlburg said, "It can get very hairy very quickly. All of a sudden you can have gridlock."

Source - Philadelphia Inquirer