On the Road: Cross-Country Running

Tags: Transportation Infrastructure

Driving across the United States presents insights into the nation’s manufacturing, energy, transportation, and sustainability developments.

Location: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California

Route: I-80 west to Akron, Ohio; I-77 SW to Columbus; I-70 west to Cove Fort, Utah; I-15 SW to San Diego

Distance from Inbound Logistics HQ: 5,808 miles

There’s nothing like taking a new car for its first big drive, a spin through the country. When that spin spans two weeks, 6,000 miles, and 14 states, doing time, 24 hours at a time, is nothing short of exhilarating.

My destination was the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) annual conference in September 2010 in San Diego. This yearly agenda always includes a mad rush of meetings, seminars, and travel to and fro— then a period of decompression back in New York to digest notes and dispatch articles. But this year was different. I took my time getting there.

And that was the real learning experience. The questions that emerged while tailing trailer lights through an Indiana night were illuminated by insights shared around a San Diego conference room table— which only provided greater context and stoked more questions for the long haul home.

Crossing the Delaware Water Gap Toll Bridge from New Jersey, then motoring along I-80 through Pennsylvania, is a six-hour lesson in avoiding a Catch-22 speed trap. The Keystone State is notorious for the number of troopers waiting in ambush to slap drivers with a ticket well north of $100. I learned my lesson a long time ago. Still, with a posted 65-mph speed limit through remote stretches of Pennsylvania Wild country, it’s hard not to hold cruise control steady at 80— no less, no more. Otherwise you’re either chasing traffic or being chased.

Outside Youngstown, Ohio, in a hallowed hamlet called Lordstown, I have reason to slow down as road construction and rain halt traffic. I catch a glimpse of a huge banner spanning the side of a massive industrial plant. It’s General Motors’ five-million-square-foot Lordstown automobile manufacturing complex. Even in a steady drizzle, the poster’s message is loud and clear: The Cruze is Coming.

For the 2,000-plus local autoworkers who lost their jobs at the plant in 2009, a consequence of the recession and GM’s bankruptcy proceedings, the manufacturer’s decision to locate production of the new Chevy Cruze at the Lordstown facility offers a small glimmer of optimism that the plant will remain operational— and that jobs might return.

Lordstown’s parable illustrates how many Americans working in the automotive industry have been cast aside by economic attrition close to home and global competition farther afield. In the Rust Belt especially, the loss of manufacturing jobs has been swift and severe. GM is hanging its hat on the 40-mile-per-gallon Cruze sedan. Lordstown hangs its hopes on a banner that promises a second coming. (Inbound Logistics Associate Editor Perry Trunick offers an inside look at how GM and its 3PL partner are working in concert at the Lordstown plant to make this hope a reality.)

Back on the road, irony strikes 170 miles away when I pass a roadside sign in the middle of a sudden thunderstorm along I-70, just west of Columbus. It reads: Crete Carriers: Drivers Wanted.

Even as U.S. manufacturing dries up and sends jobs offshore, a void is growing on the trucking side of demand. If only carriers and shippers could so swiftly pass, and forget, this looming sign of things to come.

The driver shortage, largely smoke-screened by recessionary dips in demand, is resurfacing. In parts of rural America— such as Lordstown— where unemployment surpasses double digits, there is still work to be had.

Carriers are well aware of the problem and looking for ways to find, hire, and train a new generation of truckers, young and old. Shippers are equally mindful of how the Federal Motor Carrier Security Administration’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) 2010 initiative will impact the motor freight industry— especially when a lack of qualified drivers prevents truckers from adding necessary capacity.

Farther west along I-70 comes yet another plea for driver talent, this one placarded on the back of a GI Trucking trailer. The equipment may be dated but the message is fresh. Perhaps Estes Express is onto something by pairing “GI” equipment with a “for-hire” message.

Moving along, as my miles-per-gallon dashboard digits drop to 26, I wonder if a Chevy Cruze might have been better purposed for this trip.

Gold Dust In the Wind

From 65 mph to 70, back to 65, then faster, I roll through Illinois farmland, cross the Mississippi, show Missouri my best effort, and pass into an old friend— Kansas.

A decade earlier, my friends and I, with Josie the dog in tow, motored through Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kansas, double-checking the road atlas and our geographic ignorance on a post-college exodus to Colorado. At the time, the only thing that made sense about Kansas was listening to Dust in the Wind on a cassette tape we picked up near the band’s hometown of Topeka. From a driving perspective, not much has changed in 10 years. The wind blows and Kansas still sounds better than it looks.

But, for a moment, as I climb and drift across a rolling swell on I-70, a 21st-century dream passes before my eyes and raises a new curiosity. The sky is charcoal grey, gradually turning smoky. A looming thunderstorm is on the horizon, the kind that presses storm chasers to push the pedal and transients like me to feather the brakes. In a surreal moment, against a misty backdrop miles away, the visage of ivory-white turbines turning into a dark abyss is striking. I think, “This is what Sancho and Don Quixote got all bent out of shape about.”

From I-70, the Smoky Hills Wind Farm stretches as far as the eye can see, turbines dotting the landscape, blades gently sweeping as wind gusts violently sway both my way and any confidence of better fuel economy. Located 20 miles west of Salina— in a place otherwise known as nowhere— the Smoky Hills development is managed by Italian subsidiary Enel North America, an owner and operator of renewable energy projects in 20 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.

Currently, the Smoky Hills development comprises two phases, the first of which became operational in 2008. With its second progression, the wind farm will total 351 megawatts of capacity, producing energy sufficient to power more than 85,000 households in the surrounding area.

Kansas isn’t alone. Turning off Exit 164 on I-70 in Green River, Utah, an old camping oasis from my Colorado days, I meet a flatbed tractor swinging a wind blade with expert abandon onto a service road. Eastward along I-76 in northeast Colorado, then on I-80 through Nebraska and Iowa, I count no less than seven wind turbine caravans.

Trade Winds

Stuart, Iowa, catches my eye— a wind tower at Exit 93 bears the town’s name in big, black, emboldened vertical letters, reminiscent of rural water towers that serve as welcoming beacons. Stuart residents are proud, and for good reason.

The town of 1,700 relies on its turbine to supply 11 percent of the community’s power, including streetlights and municipal buildings. Stuart is among 33 municipal utilities in the state that operate a wind turbine or get power from wind energy. Iowa ranks third nationally in wind energy production, behind California and Texas.

For Midwest towns such as Stuart, where wind sweeps across farmland and trade winds arbitrarily carry global food prices in varying directions, renewable energy is a major source of sustainable growth. Many local farmers are looking at wind power as a new cash crop, a 365-day-a-year harvest without even the tilt of a plow— just tilting turbines.

Driving along I-70 through the Midwest reveals more evidence of industry’s swerve toward sustainability and fuel efficiency. Pull into any gas station and there sits the ubiquitous ethanol pump. More telling are the legions of trucks I easily pass with little acceleration. Many motor freight carriers are mandating drivers to stay below posted speed limits, thereby achieving better fuel economy and reducing wear and tear on engines with steadier speeds and less brakeage.

Elsewhere, long combination vehicles (LCVs), both doubles and triples, and truck trailers equipped with wind guards— notably Crete Carriers, R&M Transport, and Sunbury Transport— flash in and out of view. Sunbury draws my attention because I’ve never heard of it. Then again, I’ve never been to Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, either— the company’s headquarters.

The cross-border specialist operates a fleet of 300 canary yellow trucks— but it’s green to the core. In 2007, Sunbury began equipping its LCVs with a number of aerodynamic devices, including gap fairings, trailer side skirts, and boat tails that reduce the effects of drag. It’s currently piloting a number of other green-engine technologies, as well. These investments, combined with tandem trailer loads, are proving their worth.

Extended double trailers used to transport freight between Canada’s Atlantic maritime provinces and Ontario provide savings of 28 million gallons of fuel and 297,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually, while reducing the number of trucks on the road by up to 10 percent, according to a two-year study conducted by Natural Resources Canada and the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

Pushing westward across the windy plains, it’s easy to see why carriers such as Sunbury are retrofitting fleets and changing driver behavior to mitigate fuel use. There is every incentive to make good time traversing vast stretches of Big Sky country where the only thing limited is excitement. But it comes with a cost.

Through the flats of eastern Colorado, accelerating and braking my way up into the Rockies, past places I used to call home, I try to convince myself that frequent fill-ups at familiar gas stops are a good excuse for nostalgia. Suffice to say, fuel expense is a real drag. And it only gets worse.

Coming down from the Colorado Rockies through Grand Junction into Utah, past Green River and the northern rim of the Canyonlands, travel time is fast. Long straightaways, light traffic, and ennui squeeze the pedal and siphon more fuel.

About 30 miles from where I-70 converges with I-15 in Cove Fort, Utah, I overtake a fast-spreading wildfire. A Caution: Smoke-Fog Ahead road sign trips my cruise control, and a firefighting chopper dangling a hose above turns my head awkwardly out the window. The wind’s to blame, no doubt. The wildfire has plenty of fuel still to burn. So do I.

Fuel for Thought

Outside Las Vegas on I-15, gas prices hit a trip high at $3.11 a gallon; in New Jersey, when I began, I topped off at $2.35 a gallon. The premium on fuel prices in the western United States is noticeable. The reason is laden in smog and bureaucratic green tape— a California problem that has been widely publicized and equally influential among state environmentalists and legislators.

In 2009, Governor Schwarzenegger passed the country’s first low-carbon fuel standard. The mandate requires fuel producers— blenders, refiners, and importers— to achieve emission reductions of 10 percent for their entire fuel mix by 2020, while allowing them to buy credits from producers of low-carbon fuels. It’s part of the state’s landmark 2006 legislation, Assembly Bill 32— California Global Warming Solutions Act. Similar measures are under consideration in 13 other states, mostly in the northeast. A tighter market for cleaner burning fuels translates into higher gasoline and diesel prices.

As I run away from my fuel losses in Sin City, pass Zzyzx, Calif., with mild curiosity, and make my way across Mountain Pass into the Mojave Desert, then down through Baker and up through Barstow, I once again think fondly of the Chevy Cruze.

Two hours later, my reverie comes to a standstill, and reasoning takes over. I’m sitting in traffic outside Yermo, at an Agricultural Inspection Station. It’s a minor hiccup in my schedule. But as I wait to be asked whether I’m ferrying any forbidden fruit or pest-infested plants into the San Bernardino Valley— I’m not, that I know of— it occurs to me that I’m contributing to California’s pollution problem.

In fact, the California Department of Food and Agriculture was supposed to have moved the inspection center to the Nevada border in 2009. The station, which was built in the 1930s when there were no other major arteries through the area, has long since served its purpose.

Now, conditioned truck drivers take their trailers off the highway and onto side roads to skirt the delay— a big polluting problem for the local community. Those who don’t know any better, like me, wait idly by, wondering how low-carbon emissions laws can so quickly pass judgment while highway bottlenecks get worse. At least my excess emissions have less carbon in them.

But California is making great strides in reducing congestion and increasing freight throughput at its ports by developing inland intermodal hubs like the one at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville. Travelers need only follow railroad tracks and double-stacked container trains off the interstate to the former George Air Force Base, where $100 million has already been invested in transportation and distribution infrastructure— with more to come.

Crisscrossing freeways past the Los Angeles turn-off, I make the relatively short 90-mile journey south to San Diego, the site of CSCMP’s 2010 conference.

On my downtown approach, it’s hard not to feel a sense of accomplishment, and marvel at how four days of driving cross-country changed my perspective of the transportation and logistics sector, and strengthened my passion for what I do. What better way to see firsthand the topics of conversation sure to command attention today and tomorrow? And then be able to write about it.

It just takes a little time, and an endless tank of gas.

14-hour, 900-mile days, driving coast to coast alone through the heartland of America… listening to bluegrass, rock ’n’ roll, Motown, and intermittent AM radio chat… watching the world pass by… stimulating the mind of a writer bound for San Diego in a four-cylinder Subaru, hauling a shifting load… of thoughts and ideas.

Detached, stream-of-conscious writing is the only way I can even try to summarize a fleeting experience bookmarked with permanent memories of places and perspectives, both new and old. Breathless? Yes. Priceless? No doubt.

Going, returning, in between— and now, in retrospect— I gained a greater appreciation for the daily challenges shippers and carriers encounter; and the tactics and technologies they use to bring the U.S. supply chain up to speed with shifts in supply and demand.

This odyssey was also a baptism by fire, kindled by a number of different revelations and perspectives about how industries and ideas are steering a new economy, as well as some of the challenges that lie ahead.