Max Kvidera and Todd Dills | November 01, 2010

The trucking industry and its customers are paying a high price for increasing highway congestion that shows no signs of improving

Across the nation, truckers are losing time and money because of traffic congestion. A maddening combination of road construction, accidents and too many vehicles squeezing through lane bottlenecks is frustrating drivers and pushing shipments behind schedule.

Part of this segment of I-40 in downtown Nashville ranked 24th in the congestion index developed as part of the American Transportation Research Institute’s 2009 Bottleneck Analysis of 100 Freight Significant Highway Locations, conducted in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration.

Government officials have reported that highway traffic is down because of the recession, but most truckers say they haven’t noticed. Add in problems resulting from an estimated $26 billion in road construction projects from federal economic stimulus spending, and you’ll find no shortage of on-the-road headaches.

Research reveals why road congestion has developed into such an aggravating situation for drivers. Over the past 20 years, travel has increased 72 percent in large metropolitan areas, while capacity on freeways and major streets has increased only 40 percent.

Annually, Americans spend a cumulative 4.2 billion hours, the equivalent of more than 400,000 years, stuck in traffic.

In a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure report for the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009, it was estimated that accidents and traffic delays cost Americans $365 billion annually, or $1,200 for every individual in the country.

Contributing to the congestion problem is the deteriorating state of roads and bridges. Almost 61,000 miles, or 37 percent, of total miles of the National Highway System are in poor or fair condition, according to the House report. More than 152,000 bridges — one in four — are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The number of miles traveled has increased three times as much as the number of lane-miles added.

U.S. companies are paying the price. The total cost of logistics — planning and moving goods — for businesses rose from 8.8 percent of gross domestic product in 2004 to 10.1 percent in 2008.

Truckers try to cope by adjusting their schedules when possible or by taking alternate routes when available. Western Express driver Derek Dorsey, of the Knoxville, Tenn., area, runs primarily between the Southeast and Northeast. His approach to what he calls his worst congestion chokepoint — I-95 as it transitions from the New Jersey Turnpike over the George Washington Bridge to the Cross-Bronx Expressway in New York and into Connecticut — requires careful trip planning.

When possible, Dorsey will plan to hit any major metropolitan area in his lanes before 6 a.m., after 7 p.m. or at midday to avoid rush-hour hang-ups, but the GWB, he says, is a different hurdle altogether. “I try to avoid it at all costs in the middle part of the day,” he says. “But I’ve found that if you drive it before 5 a.m., I can drive that section, [the 23 miles] from the New Jersey connection to the GWB on up to the Connecticut connection in about 20-30 minutes.”

But reach the bridge going north anytime after 5 a.m. and you could face delays of more than two hours, he says. And, yes, the old adage that time is money rings true. Figuring only Dorsey’s mileage pay (33 cents a mile, including a mileage-based per diem) and time spent on that roadway, Bronx and greater New York City congestion represents a virtual wage reduction from roughly 30 cents a minute to just over 6 cents. Put in hourly terms, that’s like cutting your rate from $18 an hour to $3.60, less than half the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

For carriers, the picture is equally dire. “Not only does it cost us over $50 per hour to run our equipment, the less tangible costs are driver fatigue and anxiety caused by the gridlock,” says Jim Wood, president and CEO of 26-power-unit fleet Maverick Express of Battle Creek, Mich. “Just as serious are the service issues that result. In this age of just-in-time and lean manufacturing, customers are literally setting their watch by what time shipments arrive. Late shipments due to road congestion can shut down manufacturing operations, and that’s huge.”

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