Congestion is a multi-billion-dollar parasite that sucks time, money and fuel from our
transportation system. Here’s how it impacts you.
Last year, Dennis Chapman made $20,000 less than when he became an owner-operator eight years ago. While he blames his plummeting income in part on the high costs of fuel and insurance, Chapman says the bigger culprit is a problem that plagues virtually every American motorist: roadway congestion.
“I am only able to do slightly more than half the total amount of local work that I was doing just five years ago,” says the 51-year-old Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., trucker who hauls containers out of the Port of Long Beach. “When I first started, I could get on the freeway and I knew I wouldn’t encounter any congestion at 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m. Now I’m encountering it at 1 or 1:30,” he says.the freeway and I knew I wouldn’t encounter any congestion at 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m. Now I’m encountering it at 1 or 1:30,” he says.
Congestion affects Chapman, who gets paid by the number of rounds he completes, more directly than many truckers. But few can completely avoid the delays, wasted fuel, vehicle wear and tear and general frustration inherent in a nationwide problem that costs the U.S. economy $168 billion per year. At the heart of the issue are traffic-snarling bottlenecks responsible for 243 million delayed truck hours in 2004, which cost the trucking industry nearly $8 billion, according to a study prepared for the Federal Highway Administration.
“It’s hot, tiring and frustrating,” says owner-operator Christopher Hendrix of Azle, Texas, of the hours he spends trying to navigate around major cities such as Houston and Atlanta. “That’s on-duty time, but two hours pass and you have only gone 25 miles.”
Bottlenecks – at interchanges, intersections, steep grades and lane reductions – account for about 40 percent of vehicle delays, according to the FHWA study. Of these, interchange bottlenecks cause the most truck hours of delay, estimated at about 124 million hours annually in 2004 and costing $4 billion per year (assuming a conservative $32.15 per hour). Freight bottlenecks are found on highways serving major international gateways such as the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, at domestic freight hubs such as Chicago, and in urban areas where transcontinental freight lanes intersect congested urban freight routes.
The FHWA study, as well as earlier reports by the American Highway Users Alliance, focuses on the 40 percent of bottlenecks that cause recurring congestion. Construction zones, crashes, breakdowns, extreme weather and inadequate traffic controls cause the remaining 60 percent. Owner-operator Greg Karamanougian of Concord, Calif., tells of sitting for hours on I-210 in Pasadena in the wee hours one Saturday morning because of traffic from a stadium event. Trucker Barry Metzler of Bearden, Ark., recalls a trip down I-70 in Pennsylvania with traffic down to one lane because of construction. “It took over an hour to go 15 miles,” he says. “I drive that area between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. now to avoid the backup.”
Barring major changes, conditions will only deteriorate, experts say. Without significant improvements in highway capacity or efficiency, population and economic growth and the resulting demand for freight transportation will push overburdened roadways beyond their limits. The American Trucking Associations projects that freight tonnage hauled by truck will grow nearly 33 percent by 2016. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Transportation projects total vehicle miles traveled will increase about 2.5 percent annually, while truck vehicle miles traveled will increase more than 3 percent annually.
“Congestion gets worse and worse until it gets to the point that a car breaks down and you don’t have anything left in the system to provide a relief valve,” says Greg Cohen, president and CEO of the American Highway Users Alliance, a pro-highway lobbying group. “We’re quite concerned with that happening on a national scale.”
The likelihood of highway capacity keeping pace with demand is virtually nil, experts say. “It’s going to get tighter and tighter over the next decade,” says Lance Grenzeback, senior vice president with Cambridge Systematics, the research firm that conducted the FHWA freight bottleneck study. That’s especially apparent when you consider the annual highway revenue projected through 2025 is sufficient only to maintain the highway system, not add significant new roads or lanes.
Without major capacity investments, FHWA estimates that by 2020, 29 percent of U.S. urban highways will be congested or exceed capacity for much of the day and 42 percent will be congested during peak periods. (FHWA’s Highway Performance Monitoring System considers a roadway intensely congested when traffic volume approaches 90 percent to 95 percent of the road’s capacity.) This is not surprising, given that the U.S. population grows each decade by a number equal to the population of Canada, transportation consultant Alan Pisarski told a recent meeting of the 12-person federal commission on transportation policy. And there’s no addition of roadways to keep pace with that growth.
Such projections paint a bleak picture for the trucking community, which sees congestion hacking away at efficiency gains it’s made in recent years. Consider that the cost of transportation logistics in 1980 was 16 percent of gross domestic product; by 2004 it had dropped to 8 percent. “We’ve halved the cost of transportation for incredible economic benefit to our country,” says Cohen. Much of this efficiency stems from industry deregulation, competition and just-in-time manufacturing, he says. “Truckers have done their part to make the system as efficient as possible.”
Yet in the face of mounting congestion, many carriers report increasing difficulty in meeting delivery windows. “If you’re on the north end of Chicago and your delivery is in Gary, Ind., how do you predict” what time you’ll arrive, asks John Miller, vice president of one-way truckload operations for Schneider National. “You have no idea what you’re going to run into.”