Freight trains often fly under the radar in the Valley’s transportation landscape.
But those locomotives that are so thoroughly intertwined with America’s origins are still a big part of the American success story – with 140,000 miles of track connecting businesses and consumers coast-to-coast and across the world.
Phoenix has direct access to two Class I railroads, UP and BNSF, and Tucson houses a bustling inland port with freight rail connections that give the region’s businesses overland access to major ocean shipping lanes.
Across Arizona, 12 freight railroads haul about 129 million tons of freight annually. A better way to picture all this freight: it’s the equivalent of 7.2 million trucks that would otherwise be on our roadways.
While rail is just one piece of the intermodal network of trains, trucks, ships and planes that delivers 54 tons of goods for every American each year, it stands out for a couple of reasons.
First, freight railroad companies operate and invest into the nationwide rail network almost completely through their own private spending – i.e. a user-pay model.
While taxpayers help to subsidize other transportation modes like roads and waterways, freight rail reinvests 40 cents out of every dollar earned back into maintenance and expansion.
That works out to about $25 billion annually over the last several years, more than most state departments of transportation spend on highways. Nationally, this spending supports 1.1 million jobs across the economy.
Likewise, America’s freight railroads stand out for being the best in the world as measured by safety, productivity and cost.
They demonstrate what happens when infrastructure is fully funded, including the fact that shippers today can move twice the amount of freight for about half of what it cost in 1980.
When railroads spend their private dollars to deploy new technologies, add intermodal facilities, enhance track capacity, etc., it means Phoenix-area businesses can move more freight for less time, less money.
Railroads also relieve the burden on taxpayer-funded roadways, cutting down on both congestion and pollution.
The freight rail success story is predicated on a public policy success story that is in question today.
The rail industry’s economic regulator, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB), is considering several new rail regulations that could chip away at the goals of a balanced system that restored railroads from the brink of failure decades ago.
Policymakers should ensure that STB regulators continue allowing railroads to earn enough to reinvest and keep Phoenix economic arteries healthy.
Their regulatory approach should also consider the larger transportation landscape and avoid favoring one mode of transport over another.
The freight railroad model is one that can serve our officials in D.C. well: avoid overregulation, promote infrastructure investment and ask infrastructure users to pay for what they use.
These principles will help keep the Phoenix economy and its freight rail connections chugging along.
Todd Sanders is the president/CEO of the Greater Phoenix Chamber.