December 2005 | Commentary | Checking In

Environmentalists: 'It's My Way, Not the Highway'

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When it comes to balancing environmental concerns with the need to improve and expand the U.S. transport infrastructure, there is a right way and there is a wrong way. Take California, for example.

While Governor Schwarzenegger was traveling in China on a mission to forge more trading opportunities, I was touring the part of his state that will carry the increased shipments the trade mission will generate.

California has made some improvements—the Pier Pass program extending the hours ports stay open; the Pacific Gateway Cargo Center; the Ontario airport supplement to LAX; the Southern California Logistics Airport and other development in the Inland Empire by warehouses, 3PLs, and others.

But some "improvements" are band-aids, seeking to finesse the problem instead of attacking it head on.

While overseas missions to build trade opportunities generate press coverage, and blue ribbon commissions study what makes companies such as Nissan move its North American headquarters from Carson, Calif., to Nashville, Tenn., 1,500 jobs lost, some policy-makers are missing-in-action on the real mission—modernizing transport infrastructure in California and all across America.

On one hand, politicians and public administrators need the tax revenues and jobs that real transport infrastructure improvements create. But on the other hand, environmentalists and the usual media suspects, along with some fringe politicians, cow those same policy-makers into defeating or deflecting many important actions that would expand and improve infrastructure.

Here's one example. Environmentalists and labor interests recently opposed a plan for the Port of Oakland to answer its urgent need for expansion by using the long-ailing Port of Sacramento's under-utilized facilities. Fuel savings to transport goods to large DCs in the area could be tenfold, according to Wilson Lacy, the Port of Oakland's director of maritime operations.

That would make for better air quality, wouldn't it? More jobs and tax revenues? Lower supply chain costs for companies and their consumers all across the United States?

Why labor interests joined the environmental industrial complex and opposed this initiative is beyond me. Expanding port capacity creates well-paying jobs. If you don't do it in California, companies will just take their business elsewhere—maybe to Alabama, for example.

Why do some environmental groups oppose improving transportation infrastructure? It's likely that even the most rapacious industrialists among us don't really want to be environmental evil-doers. We all breathe. We all want to hand off a nice looking, nice smelling country to the next generation.

Yet my California trip makes me think that some enviro-activists don't want any transportation improvement.

Example? For years, California enviros have been extolling the virtues of intermodalism to take trucks off overcrowded highways. They actually call the busiest lanes "diesel death zones."

Yet in a complete about-face to the pro-intermodal position, they recently succeeded in blocking expansion of intermodal facilities in the region. Working with enviros is like taking a swing at fog; you can see their position but you just can't get your hands on it.

I don't want to pick on the Left Coast. Improving transportation infrastructure is a national issue. To be fair, though, it is more magnified in California because of the product volume its infrastructure must bear.

In Choctaw Point, Mobile, Ala., the enviros at Mobile Bay Watch waged a three-year legal and media battle to prevent investment in transportation infrastructure. The fight is over, and it happily ended with a new container terminal project that may create up to 500 new jobs, many paying up to $65,753 per year. Capacity could increase from 75,000 to 750,000 containers over 10 years.

Announcing the Mobile Container Terminal deal, Gov. Bob Riley said, "the Port is more important than it has ever been." Leaders of both parties agreed, and took action. That's how they do it in Alabama.

That kind of action is anathema to some, with luxury housing and another waterfront shopping mall being more acceptable to the Bay Watch crowd.

Not far away in New Orleans, environmental lawsuits over the past 30 years stopped several planned improvements to the lock systems protecting the city. I wonder what the result of Hurricane Katrina would have been if U.S. District Judge Charles Schwartz, Jr., never issued that 1977 injunction against the Army Corps of Engineers' project to install floodgates on Lake Pontchartrain.

"Plaintiffs herein have demonstrated that they, and in fact all persons in this area, will be irreparably harmed if the barrier project...is allowed to continue," he wrote.

While that kind of lawsuit helped produce catastrophic results visible to all, many irrational environmental lawsuits create catastrophic economic results almost to the same monetary scale when taken in the aggregate—just not all at once, and therefore not as visible.

Federal, state, and local community leaders should look to our industry and the improvements it needs to fill the current job-gap breech that will only grow wider. Policy-makers have a need to feed the voracious tax machines that have been created over the past four decades. Economic growth is the result of transport infrastructure investment and expansion, an environmental bad thing to a small and powerful few, but a good thing to most of us.

When it comes to balancing environmental concerns with the need to improve and expand the U.S. transport infrastructure, there is a right way, a wrong way, and maybe even a SmartWay (www.epa.gov/smartway). Public/ private partnerships such as the EPA's SmartWay Transport program—alliances between business and government to responsibly improve, expand, and upgrade transport infrastructure—are needed.

Union and non-union labor also need to get on board because the choice to those interested in labor issues is clear: minimum-wage retail jobs at the next waterfront mall, or good jobs in an expanding industry that benefits the workers directly and the overall economy as well? Policy-makers should show a little more gumption and stand up to irrational environmental demands.

When the enviro invective blares from your TV, change the channel. When the anti-business, anti-jobs, environmental industrial complex files the next round of irrational lawsuits against needed transportation improvement projects, there's only one thing to do, and that's fight.

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