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Uncertain infrastructure is largest worry for shipping, executive says

Tom Finkbiner knows planes, trains and trucks. Since 1999, he has been chief executive at Quality Distribution of Tampa, which operates the nation's largest tank truck network and specializes in moving chemicals from plants to industrial customers.

Before that, he ran the shipping container and truck trailer business of Norfolk Southern railroad. He also has held executive positions at North American Van Lines and Airborne Air Freight.

In a recent interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Finkbiner, 51, talked about the plight of interstate highways, the lack of international flights at Tampa International Airport and why Tampa's port should curb its ambitions for container cargo.

Q. What's the biggest problem facing the transportation industry today?

The biggest thing across all modes is infrastructure . . . the basic capacity of having enough track or highways. Transportation is not as much a matter of speed as consistency. On-time is plus or minus 15 minutes of when our customer says so.

The interstate highway system was actually the National Defense Highway System built in the '50s. Ike liked way the Germans could move tanks on the autobahn. And it created a lot of jobs. So we built 30,000 miles of highway. That changes the way people do business and live their lives. Then, you had this period of neglect of repair, upgrades and maintenance. Now, building 1 mile of highway can take 20 years.

The peak year for railroads was 1916. Since that time . . . railroads downsized their infrastructure. Five years ago (at Norfolk Southern), the cost of maintaining a mile of track was $6,000. That meant it cost $120-million a year, not to add capacity or improve (track) but just to keep what we had from falling apart.

Just maintaining where you are is an enormous investment. Not only do we not build for growth, we don't maintain what have and we fall further behind.

Q. So who needs to step up and pay the bill for building more rails, highways, ports and airports?

The only private network is the railroads. The government could guarantee (corporate) bonds for that. All those other places _ airports, seaports and highways _ are cost centers, not profit centers, for government. But the (federal) government has to maintain the interstate network, and there are military purposes for airports and seaports.

Q. What's been the lasting effect of the threat of terrorism across the transportation industry?

Whether it's the 40-minute delay you have at the airport or the satellite tracking devices on our trucks, it just drives up costs and makes you less productive at a time private industry is more and more demanding. It's a very expensive insurance policy _ probably the right thing to do since there was no security before. The country has shown lots of willingness to invest when there's a positive outcome. But here, it's just cost.

Q. A candidate for mayor of Tampa last year criticized Tampa International Airport officials for a lack of international flights. Who's to blame for that?

It isn't up to local government. It's market-driven. The problem is that one of the country's biggest hubs for international flights is 3{ hours from here (in Miami). Tampa International is a wonderful facility. They couldn't make it any better.

Q. The Port of Tampa's bid to become a player in the container cargo trade has generated a lot of attention. What are the port's chances of making a dent in the business?

There isn't as much container business heading north and south as there is going trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific. That's going to Miami, Norfolk and New York or to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. There isn't that much trade from the Caribbean basin. They might attract little stuff.

A huge problem for the port of Tampa is they don't have competitive railroads. CSX can charge whatever they want. They don't have an inland connection and will be overshadowed by Miami, New Orleans and Jacksonville. Because of the airport, there's a much better opportunity of being a bigger-time cruise port. If there's only money to do one thing right, all our advantages look like the cruise line bid.

_ Steve Huettel can be reached at or (813) 226-3384.