Posted by: Dan Bergeson | September 23, 2007

Railroads vs. Trucks: Was dismantling the railroads a good idea?

I’m biking as much as possible these days, although it’s never enough. As I travel paved county and state roads, I’m keenly aware of the size and frequency of large trucks on any given stretch of road. There are roads I avoid for this reason because they border on suicidal for cyclists.

semi truck on the highway

No amount of biking, however, could produce the incontrovertible, visceral evidence of the volume of truck traffic on the North American roads of the 21st century as standing on the side of I-35 for two hours. Yesterday, my colleagues and I were cleaning up our portion of the highway for our fall Adopt-a-Highway commitment. Believe me, the trucks are large, loud and frightening when it’s up close and personal like that. And this was a Saturday morning!

With all of the weeping and gnashing of teeth recently over the state of Minnesota’s roads and bridges (all of it justified, in my opinion), I keep wondering how it is that we got into this mess. It seems obvious (at least to me) that if the volume of 2- and 3-axle trucks was reduced on the road system, maintenance of the system would be easier and cheaper and the safety of the public wouldn’t be constantly put at risk. But then, how would all of the goods of our consumer-based economy get to market?


steam enginesteam enginesteam engine

It’s no secret that long before over-the-road truck transport became the preferred method of interstate commercial distribution in this country, the railroads performed that function. And we know the story of the rise of the internal combustion engine and the dismantling of the railroads that resulted from the growth of the automobile and truck market. But the wholesale dismantling of the railroad infrastructure (the rails) was extrememely shortsighted, in my view, and we’re now paying the price for that poor choice on our highways.

It seems highly unlikely that any entity, public or private, will ever lay down the thousands of miles of track that were ripped up or abandoned in the 20th century, but if we would at least develop a transportation strategy that diversifies our options for both movement of people and distribution of goods, it would be better for the future. Today’s StarTribune has an editorial on this topic that’s worth reading. The specific facet of transporation being discussed there is traffic congestion and the state of that urban problem in the Twin Cities. The title is “The Band-aids are running out.”

We should work on not just repairing our roads and bridges, but on finding alternate paths to carry the load. Continuing to retrofit existing roads with additional lanes will never be the long-term solution to our transportation dilemma.


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