Clogged Arteries

| July 30, 2006

“We’re seeing more and more carriers not arriving on time, causing delays in shipments and customer dissatisfaction,” says Wayne Johnson, director of logistics for American Gypsum, a Dallas wallboard manufacturer. To meet delivery windows, “we have to make sure sensitive loads are shipped first of the day,” he says. The company also increased its dedicated fleet by 8 percent this year to make up for productivity lost to congestion.

Increased travel times caused by recurring congestion – the kind you can plan for – cost carriers and shippers an additional $25 to $200 per hour, depending on the type of freight hauled, according to FHWA. Truck delays from unexpected congestion such as an accident can add another 50 percent to 250 percent. These figures include the driver’s time and the cost to the receiver of the delayed shipment.

Rising costs present challenges for carriers such as Silver Arrow Express of Rockford, Ill., which must balance serving its customers with maintaining a profitable business. “On any new bids, I’m adding at least an hour of revenue,” says Jeff Wilmarth, president of the 30-truck fleet, located about 80 miles north of Chicago.

Congestion has become such a fact of life, carriers say, that some customers have adjusted their production to accommodate more travel-friendly pickup and delivery times. In negotiations with a potential new shipper, for example, Wilmarth made it clear he could not take the company’s shipments from Freeport, Ill. to West Middlesex, Pa., during rush hour. The shipper, which produces window blinds, agreed to cut off orders to accommodate a noon pick- up. “I can’t remember the last time a shipper did that,” Wilmarth says.

Congestion is taking its toll on drivers’ pocketbooks, too. Miles mean money, and more than one-third responding to an Overdrive survey say congestion has reduced the miles they drive. Terry Swanson, a nine-truck owner-operator out of Baileyville, Kan., tells of one trucker who was headed to Houston on I-45. Although he’d allowed ample time, the driver hit stop-and-go traffic and didn’t get to Houston until too late to unload. “He had to sit Friday, Saturday and Sunday and then unload and reload on Monday,” Swanson says. The driver lost two days of income.

For many drivers, the hours of service regulations, which went into effect in 2004, have compounded the problem. A trucker can drive 11 hours per day within a 14-hour window but the clock never stops – even if he’s sitting in traffic for hours at a time. “That truck driver who might have taken a break during rush hour, now because he’s in the middle of earning time, he has to inch forward at a slow speed,” says U.S. Xpress President and CEO Pat Quinn, who also serves as ATA chairman and as a member of the new federal commission on transportation policy. Quinn estimates most carriers saw a 5 percent to 6 percent drop in productivity from the new regs.

Most carriers compensate for lost productivity by increasing pay and charging shippers and receivers detention time for contributing to the problem. But these tactics are just masking the bigger issue, experts say. “In the last couple of years, we’ve put more focus on driver detention charges,” Schneider’s Miller says. But because accessorial charges only compensate for waste in the system, “we’d prefer to not have to collect on them.” Even when drivers are compensated for waiting, the experience frustrates them, which means congestion is also a contributing factor in turnover, Miller says. “If you had to do that every single day, would you keep doing what you’re doing?”

Battling daily bottlenecks burns huge amounts of fuel – 2.3 billion gallons annually, according to the Texas Transportation Institute, with other estimates as high as 5.7 billion gallons. That wasted fuel translates into higher concentrations of pollutants, particularly carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds, according to the American Highway Users Alliance.

But perhaps the most overlooked aspect of congestion is the impact it has on safety, AHUA’s Cohen says. On over-crowded highways, motorists jockey for position at exits and entryways, increasing the potential for crashes. Cohen estimates congestion is a factor in up to 13,000 of the 43,000 lives lost annually in traffic accidents.

The bottlenecks and traffic jams that rob four- and 18-wheeled motorists alike of time, money and safety will continue to affect transportation and our nation’s economy for the foreseeable future. “Continued economic growth is seriously threatened by congestion, the cost of which shippers, manufacturers, operators and ultimately, consumers, bear,” wrote Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta in his introduction to the May 2006 paper, National Strategy to Reduce Congestion. “The administration’s objective must be to reduce congestion, not simply to slow its increase.”

Until that happens, the trucking industry will continue to work to find ways around the roadblocks. “Nobody stands there and gets hammered over the head – they look for creative solutions,” Cambridge Systematics’ Grenzeback says. “But it’s going to get harder to adjust.”


  1. CITY: Buffalo-Niagara Falls
    LOCATION: I-90 at I-290
    DAILY TRUCKS: 33,100
    ANNUAL DELAY: 1.66 million hours

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