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Service Industries, Transportation

largest railroad companies, Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Hartsfield International Airport

Transportation-related businesses are an important part of the service industry. Trucks, railroads, and ships transport goods to markets across the country. Commercial airlines, railroads, bus companies, and taxis move tourists and commuters to their destinations. The U.S. Postal Service and a number of private carriers deliver goods as well as mail to consumers. The U.S. transportation network spreads into all sections of the country, but the web of railroads and highways is much denser in the eastern half of the United States, where it serves the nation’s largest urban, industrial, and population concentrations.

As of 1996 the 10 largest railroad companies in the United States operated 72 percent of tracks. Takeovers and mergers among the major private railroad companies were common during the 1980s and 1990s. Amtrak (the National Railroad Passenger Corporation), a federally subsidized organization, operates almost all the intercity passenger trains in the United States. It carried 20.2 million passengers in 1997. Although rail passenger travel has declined in importance during the 20th century, some U.S. cities still maintain extensive subways or commuter railways, including New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and the San Francisco-Oakland area of California.

During the early decades of the 20th century, motor vehicle transport developed as a serious competitor of the railroads, both for passengers and freight. Federal aid to states for highway construction began with the passage of the Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916.

The federal aid program was greatly expanded in 1956 when the government began an ambitious expansion of the Interstate Highway System, a 74,717-km (46,427-mi) network of limited-access highways that connects the nation’s principal cities. This carefully designed system enables motorists to drive across the country without encountering an intersection or traffic signal. It carries about 20 percent of U.S. motor-vehicle traffic, though it accounts for just over 1 percent of U.S. roads and streets. The system is designed for safe, efficient driving, with gentle curves, easy grades and long sight distances. Entering and exiting the highway system is permitted only at planned interchanges.

Air transport began to compete with other modes of transport in the United States after World War I (1914-1918). The first commercial flights in the United States were made in 1918 and carried small amounts of mail. Passenger service began to gain importance in the late 1920s, but air transport did not become a leading mode of travel until the advent of commercial jet craft after World War II. By the 1990s a growing number of Americans flew for personal and business travel, in part because of the need to cover long distances and in part because they like to get to their destinations quickly. In 1997 airlines in the United States carried 598.1 million passengers, the vast majority of whom were domestic travelers.

By the end of the 20th century, large and small airports across the nation formed a network providing air transportation to individual travelers. The nation had 5,129 public and 13,263 private airports in 1996. The largest airports in the United States by passenger arrivals and departures are William B. Hartsfield International Airport near Atlanta, Georgia; Chicago-O’Hare International Airport in Illinois; Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in Texas; and Los Angeles International Airport in California.

The United States has a relatively small commercial shipping fleet. In 1998 only 473 vessels of 1,000 gross tons and larger were registered in the United States. Only 56 percent were in use; most of the remainder formed part of a government-owned military reserve fleet. However, many American ship owners register their vessels in foreign countries such as Liberia and Panama, where crew wages, taxes, and operating costs are lower.

In terms of the number of ships docking, New Orleans, Louisiana, is the busiest port in the nation; each year it handles more than 6,000 vessels. Other leading ports include Los Angeles-Long Beach, California; Houston, Texas; New York, New York; San Francisco-Oakland, California; Miami, Florida; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Crude petroleum accounts for 22 percent of the waterborne tonnage of the United States. Petroleum products make up 18 percent. Coal accounts for 14 percent, and farm products for 14 percent.

The inland waterway network of the United States has three main components—the Mississippi River system, the Great Lakes, and the coastal waterways. Some 66 percent of the annual water freight traffic is on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, 17 percent is on the Great Lakes, and most of the remainder is on the coastal waterways. A major thoroughfare of the coastal waterways is the Intracoastal Waterway, a navigable, toll-free shipping route extending for about 1,740 km (about 1,080 mi) along the Atlantic Coast and for about 1,770 km (about 1,100 mi) along the Gulf of Mexico coast. About 45 percent of the total annual traffic on all coastal waterways travels on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, about 30 percent is on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, and about 25 percent is on Pacific Coast waterways.

Most goods in the United States travel by railroad and truck, which compete vigorously for freight transport. In 1996, 38 percent of all United States freight moved by rail and about 27 percent traveled by truck. However, other modes of transportation more easily handle special freight items. An additional 20 percent of all freight, by volume, moved through pipelines, mainly oil and natural gas pipelines originating in Texas and Louisiana with destinations in the Midwest and Northeast. Another 16 percent, mainly bulk commodities like coal, grain, and industrial limestone, moved by barge on inland waters.

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