At the 92nd annual meeting, the Transportation Research Board’s attendance level had it busting at the seams, overflowing three major hotels. Sort of like the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles at rush hour.

 TRB spokesman Russell Houston says 11,700 registrants came to the meeting, a record. They flocked in from all over the world, a United Nations of transportation interests. In 2015, the event will move to the Convention Center.

At the freight sessions, I saw what transportation leaders have been advocating for all along: a multi-modal collaboration. Now that freight transportation has finally garnered attention in MAP-21, that industry is galvanized, with marine, air, road and rail represented at the various sessions.

Gene Conti, freshly retired from the North Carolina Dept. of Transportation, talked about that state’s task force on logistics, which contemplated the idea of logistics villages, and a third runway for air cargo coupled with a rail terminal. Lauren Broad, director of the Office of Marine Highways and Passenger Services for the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, says that 18 water-based routes have been designated as alternatives to highways for some cargo. On those routes, containers may be directed onto barges rather than trucks.

 Jacob Falk, director of infrastructure innovation for the U.S. DOT, added that out of 200+ TIGER grant-funded projects, almost one-third are related to freight infrastructure.

Every session I saw was well-attended; colleague Jim Parsons says the ones he attended were overflowing. Many of these dealt with the implications of automated, “intelligent” vehicles. Google already has a fleet, and some states already have regulations in place, anticipating their inevitable presence on the nation’s highways.

Futuristic developments like these, as well as the evolution of intelligent construction techniques such as infrared scanning and intelligent compaction of asphalt paving, are helping to make transportation, well, sexy. It didn’t hurt that Richard Blanco, a civil engineer by training and the poet for the president’s second inauguration, spoke of “weaving steel into bridges” and “hands
 digging trenches, routing pipes and cables.”

At a cocktail party on Tuesday, I saw another, very personal, very adorable example of intermodal mingling: Steve Millsap, recently retired from BNSF Railway, and his wife Hala Elgaaly, of the Federal Highway Administration and previously the Coast Guard.

Move over, James Carville and Mary Matalin! What happens with a federal employee protecting marine interests sees a railroad bridge blocking marine traffic? Ask her railroad employee hubby about that...I nominate them for Transportation Supercouple of the Year.

There’s still work to be done on the intermodal front, though. When entering the ballroom to go to the cocktail party, you saw a man standing there like the scarecrow at the crossroads, a literal fence dividing the room in two behind him.

“Freight caucus is over there,” he said, pointing left. Then, pointing right: “Railroad people over there.”