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By Pat Foran, Editor
Before the “what-are-we-gonna-do-about-infrastructure-capacity?” question can move from the rhetorical to the real-life policy-shaping realm, North American freight transportation stakeholders need to be able to talk to each other. Michael Sussman believes he’s got just the venue.
Sussman is the founder and chairman of OnTrackAmerica Inc. (OTA), a non-profit venture launched this summer that aims to promote “the intelligent growth of North American rail transportation” by fostering multi-stakeholder discussion via the OnTrackAmerica.org portal.
“The rail system has so many stakeholders that there’s a real need for new methods of large-scale dialogue, interaction and negotiation,” says Sussman, who also is president of Strategic Rail Finance, a financial services and advisory firm. “OnTrackAmerica is a forum for using the efficiencies of electronic communication in concert with in-person gatherings. We’ll convene dialogues over an extended period of time so that all perspectives can be included.”
Casting a wide net is key to laying the foundation for OTA’s ultimate raison d’etre: OnTrackAmerica 2020, a 12-year initiative — it’s timed to integrate with the next two transportation reauthorization bills — for planning, strategizing and implementing a continental rail system that fully optimizes the energy, capital and space efficiencies of railroads.
“We’re trying to put some rationality into the planning process,” Sussman says.
It’s something Sussman has been thinking about for the past decade while helping Class II and III railroads finance projects.
“It became clear that what best contributed to railroads’ success was the coordination and collaboration of a range of interested participants,” he says, citing government, shippers and banks.
While the Internet was becoming the communication conduit of choice, U.S. infrastructure capacity was becoming a hot topic in policy-shaping circles. But there were few opportunities for stakeholders to discuss it. Enter OTA, the “first use of the Internet for convening and organizing large-group action-planning toward rail industry development and related public policy,” according to OTA.
OTA’s offerings include an “OnTrackAmerica Blog,” which features commentary on rail and related governmental policy; and “The Groundwork Forum,” online discussions on a variety of topics that will serve as an “exploration into the possibility of facilitated, intelligent dialogue,” as OTA puts it.
In turn, the ideas discussed will help establish the framework for a “leadership” workshop in March 2009. Then, OTA will convene a six-month “North American Rail Transportation Summit” with the aim of establishing a consensus on a vision, and a set of overall objectives and performance measures for an OnTrackAmerica 2020 plan. The summit will feature online and in-person, large-group dialogues via the Internet-based OnTrackAmerica Roundtable System.
“The system we’ve developed allows many parties to respond to thoughtfully developed questions,” he says. “OTA facilitators will synthesize the input, and deliver it in digest form back to the participants.”
OTA has enlisted several partners, including technology firm ianncomm; AmericaSpeaks, a non-profit that designs and facilitates large-group, public policy “deliberations”; the Center for Research in Conflict & Negotiation at Penn State University; and Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute at North Dakota State University.
“I believe this is what’s needed for the betterment of the whole system,” says Sussman, who has invested $300,000 of his own money in OTA. “I hope to see this method of public policy deliberation proliferate.”
Ed Burkhardt does, too. The president and CEO of Rail World Inc. made a “substantial financial contribution” to OTA, Sussman says.
“I endowed a chair at Michigan State, and this is the same type of thing,” says Burkhardt. “I want to do something for an industry that was good to me. I want this to succeed.”
Sussman hopes other stakeholders feel the same way.
For more information, visit OTA online at www.ontrackamerica.org or contact Executive Director Ken Youmans via phone (215-735-0511) or email.
— Pat Foran