Ohio Conference On Freight Discussion Highlights Pandemic Recovery, Infrastructure

The Ohio Conference on Freight looked at “Freight on the Frontline” while moving into a virtual format May 20–21.

The conference was hosted by the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) and included aspects of maritime, rail and trucking industries as well as logistics and supply chain issues that unite them.

Guided by moderator Thea Walsh Ewing, director of transportation and infrastructure development for MORPC, panelists at an opening session spoke about how their industries were recovering from the global coronavirus pandemic as well as how they are planning for the future.

Mark Locker, program manager for maritime, freight and logistics for the Ohio Department of Transportation, noted that the pandemic has altered the way people do business.

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“I think this has changed us,” he said. “A lot of technologies and e-commerce were already trending, and this accelerated things.”

Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, he said, people began to look with renewed interest at domestically sourcing their supply chains. They also became interested in having products delivered directly to them instead of shopping at a store.

“They were going strong before, but now there’s a higher demand than ever for goods to be delivered to the door,” he said.

Additionally, he said, “Technology has definitely taken off.” More people continue to telecommute, he said, and gatherings that would normally be held in person are often taking place virtually instead.

Ferzan Ahmed, executive director of the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Committee, said that traffic was down 70 percent from average near the beginning of the pandemic, with commercial trucks making up 20 to 25 percent of all traffic in April and May of 2020.

“And then we started seeing those numbers come back,” he said.

One of the ways Ohio helped accommodate the trucking industry to improve safety and help vehicle counts rebound was by doing the opposite of what many states were doing with their truck stop/service plazas, Ahmed said. 

The state not only kept the areas open but also brought in additional services, including food trucks, since so many restaurants were closed. It did close some areas where people tend to gather, such as dine-in spaces, but that allowed janitorial staff to focus on enhanced sanitization of other areas to promote safety. 

As a result of these efforts, along with other recovery, Ahmed said that by the end of 2020, the turnpike was seeing traffic at levels above those in 2019.

Megan McClory, secretary/treasurer of Ohio Rail Development, said she has seen more of a “mixed bag” when it comes to recovery from the pandemic. As of last month, she said, intermodal traffic is now exceeding 2019 and 2020 levels. However, she said, a lot of commodities do remain below 2019 levels, including a weakness in automotive shipments because of supply chain shortages.

Howard Wood, executive director of DriveOhio, talked about moving forward with new technology that could affect the transportation industry, including the development of autonomous vehicles.

During the pandemic, he said, “The spirit of innovation was unlocked.”

Walsh Ewing asked about concerns the panelists had moving forward.

Locker said one concern the industry should take seriously is cyberthreats. He mentioned the recent shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline due to a ransomware threat. The industry needs to protect itself, especially as its reliance on technology grows, he said.

Additionally, he said, a focus on infrastructure continues to be important. That is highlighted most often when infrastructure fails, he said, noting the impact of a truck fire on the Brent Spence Bridge in Cincinnati that required much of it to be rebuilt, the closure of the Mississippi River for four days beneath the Hernando de Soto Bridge earlier this month in Memphis, Tenn., after a major structural beam was found to be cracked and the blockage of the Suez Canal after a ship ran aground.

There are also reasons to be hopeful, however, he said. He highlighted the success of a containerized port in Cleveland, Ohio, along with the development of the planned Mid-Ohio Valley Statistical Port, which could gain final approval as soon as later this month.

Additionally, panelists said, the new federal administration has highlighted its emphasis on protecting the environment, which could mean opportunities to lay the foundation for electrification across the transportation industry.

“I’m extremely optimistic about the future,” Locker said. “This is the most revolutionary time in infrastructure since the industrial revolution.”