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.
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.”
Continuing road construction in the I-94 corridor between Chicago and Detroit, a high-traffic lane for Maverick, has intensified the congestion issue for the company. It’s “been horrible for us and for any trucker that traverses that stretch,” Wood says. “There’s an old joke about there being two seasons in Michigan: winter and road construction. It’s not as funny as it used to be.”
And not much can be done about it, other than attempting to plan trips to avoid peak times. “But that’s usually just wishful thinking” due to daily business cycles, Wood says.
Owner-operator Dick McCorkle, who’s leased to Perkins Specialized Transportation, estimates traffic congestion costs him at least 10 hours a week, sometimes much more. Occasionally, he will turn down a load if it’s bound for a highly congested area, such as Chicago. “I lose revenue each week,” he says.
McCorkle, who figures he drives into a congested area every other day if not daily, says the congestion problem is worsened by the lack of safe parking facilities for trucks (see “Fewer Places to Park,” page 60). He says many truckstop parking spaces are filled by late afternoon, and he tries to avoid parking at highway rest areas. He often delivers to shopping malls, but most of them prohibit truck parking.
Drivers say that in certain areas of cities such as Washington, D.C., as well as New York, trucks are restricted to where they can go since 9/11 due to security concerns, adding to congestion headaches. McCorkle says many truck routes have been changed, leaving fewer alternates. “We can’t use Pennsylvania Avenue [in Washington, D.C.] at all, and if you’re anywhere near a federal building, police will ask what you’re doing,” he says.
Owner-operator Shawn Cavanaugh delivers at least 60 percent of his loads into the New York area, where truck routes are limited. “There are usually only one or two ways to get into a place,” he says.
A 47-year truck driver, McCorkle says he often calls ahead to where he’s delivering to see if he can park if he can’t deliver the load early. “Sixty percent of the time they can accommodate me,” he says. “I try to go in before rush hour and come out after rush hour.”
McCorkle adds that Perkins has begun working with some of its regular customers to allow an extra day in the shipping schedule.
Cavanaugh, who’s leased to Camel Express, says many of his New York trips are set up for him to pick up at night and deliver in the early morning. He says companies and New York are working to route more trucks through the city at night and other off-peak times.
Top 5 Congested Areas
Total-person hours of delay (millions)
Los Angeles metro area 485
New York metro area 379
Dallas-Ft. Worth 141
San Francisco-Oakland 129
Source: Texas Transportation Institute data, 2007
How has highway congestion changed in recent years?
It’s gotten worse — 80%
It doesn’t seem as bad — 10%
It’s remained the same — 105
Based on survey of 157 respondents at eTrucker.com
Carriers speak out on congestion
We asked three representatives from trucking companies to answer questions about highway congestion. Following are a few of their responses.
What can be done to combat congestion?
Osterberg: Bottleneck issues are due to new infrastructure needs. The trucking industry has been very clear about what is the best funding mechanism for roadways. It’s clear we need an increase in the fuel tax — that’s job No. 1. We can also consider higher-productivity vehicles, traffic pattern assessments — essentially, today, we have to be able to detect incidents and be able to dynamically reroute our drivers around congestion areas. I would argue that the data elements exist for those to work today. Now, we have to get those elements efficiently into the hands of the decision maker, the commercial driver.
Wood: Unfortunately, there’s not a one-size-fits-all, easy answer. Raising fuel taxes or any taxes certainly doesn’t thrill me right now, but fuel tax increases will probably be part of the answer. Let’s just not make the trucking industry shoulder the entire burden. Intermodal options certainly make sense, especially in the long-haul lanes that are destined to metro areas, but make much less sense for regional, suburban shipments.
How do you view the perceived dearth of available parking in high-traffic lanes — part of the congestion problem or a separate issue?
Wood: I think it’s all part of the same problem. There’s a lot of cars and trucks on the road. Our culture in America is one of mobility and convenience. People drive cars because of the freedom and convenience it affords us. Shippers use trucks for the convenience and service it affords. This equals a lot of vehicles on the roads and in the rest areas.
Osterberg: Truck parking is inadequate. Many of my drivers have told me, “If I’m not looking for a safe, secure spot by 6 p.m., I’m going to have a problem.” One of the things we need to think about as we think about infracture development is the need to invest more in safe and secure parking. The commercial infrastructure can support some of that. But we’ve got to stop the trend [of dwindling rest area spaces].
What can shippers do to help carriers?
Erskine: Understand CSA [Comprehensive Safety Analysis] 2010 and be proactive in scheduling and reduce driver detention times.
Wood: We’d like more evening and weekend shipments. This would help immensely. They’re already doing a lot more of this in major metropolitan areas.
Osterberg: In light of the projection of congestion getting worse, my belief is that historical levels of service are not going to be sustainable. Ask the critical question, “When do you really need the product there?” We’ve been through a period of just-in-time logistics … to make the supply chain more efficient. [Congestion, combined with CSA 2010 and a broad move to electronic logs, will force all] supply chain players to come together and address the issues of a different standard of service. You need to add some flexibility — allow for some safety stops… We can’t always rely on the infrastructure to support timely delivery. Give us delivery windows rather than exact times. I really view this as a supply chain challenge, not just a carrier challenge.
What would you most like to see from the upcoming highway reauthorization bill?
Erskine: Personally, I would like to see the return of the split sleeper time. New rules force drivers to use continuous hours of service regardless of the need for personal rest or common sense to avoid rush hour congestion.
Wood: I can only hope that there will be consideration of “truck-only” lanes. I think [a move to more intermodal shipments] is one of the possible solutions to the problem; however, railroads need to step up and shoulder some of the blame for traffic congestion as well. Who among us haven’t sat in the car during prime business hours while a freight train has traffic backed up as far as the eye can see. Just like truckers, they need to look at the construction of overpasses/underpasses and scheduling improvements.
Mike Erskine, senior vice president of the van division for diversified 2,400-power-unit fleet Western Express, headquartered in Nashville, Tenn.
Battling the Big Road With Western Express Driver Derek Dorsey
I set out Sept. 21 for a round-trip from Nashville to Atlanta with Western Express driver Derek Dorsey. We left Nashville just prior to noon.
An hour and a half later, after a brief stop at a Murfreesboro Pilot to refill the diesel-exhaust-fluid tank in the 2011 Freightliner Cascadia, we started the climb up Monteagle Mountain on I-24. Unsuspecting heavy-haul drivers worked their way to the slow lane, some even to the right apron. Dorsey was well-prepared and moved into the right lane early, knowing it was prudent.
Battling congestion, after all, is not only a productivity issue. His 43,000-lb. load of waste paper from a magazine printer bound first for a Western drop yard in Conley, Ga., then to the WM Recycle America facility in Augusta, Ga., would necessitate a slow run up the mountain. The safe choice, Dorsey said, was to drop his 10-speed transmission to eighth gear and take it easy, even as he gained speed on less significant grades along the climb. The gearing choice allowed him the power flexibility to be able to pass, twice, when he needed to, and avoid creating major congestion problems for drivers behind him.
“When you’re going up this hill, there are trucks that can climb the hill, but other trucks will bog down,” he said. “It causes congestion as lighter trucks and cars try to get around them in two lanes of traffic.”
Dealing with congestion is all about watching your own movements and those of vehicles around you. Patience is often a useful virtue, evident in Dorsey’s motto — “I’m too blessed to be stressed.” Also a driver-trainer for recruits at Western Express, Dorsey routinely passes the motto along to his students. “Stress leads to carelessness, which leads to accidents, and sometimes that can lead to a fatality,” he told me. “I treat everybody on this road, regardless of race, creed or color, just like that’s my family member and I want to see them at Christmas … like I love them with all my heart. It takes a lot of care to be out here.”
After a brief slowdown at the I-24/U.S. 27 connection in Chattanooga, Tenn., we experienced no significant issues before Atlanta. The Western Express drop yard, shared with several other carriers, is at the south end of the city. To give me an opportunity to see the city’s congestion problems, Dorsey chose the eastern portion of the I-285 loop as his primary route.
Approaching the I-285 junction on I-75 before 5 p.m., northbound traffic out of town was crawling. As we merged onto the loop road, we were crawling ourselves. “On the bypass,” Dorsey said, “typically in any major metropolitan area, the two right lanes are for trucks.” That was the case here, and Dorsey, as he does elsewhere in traffic, chose the left of those two. “The rule of thumb is you always want to have a way out.”
Choosing this lane, as four-wheelers darted into and out of the two-tractor-trailer-length space he tried to leave between his front bumper and the vehicle ahead of him, “I can go left or right to avoid a hazardous situation,” he said, “particularly with 43,000 in the box, which slows me down on maneuvering the truck even faster. I let them have their way, let them have the road.”
We were well ahead of the scheduled 9 p.m. pickup time he had at Custom Building Products just west of Atlanta in Lithia Springs off I-20. After dropping the paper load for another Western driver at the yard in Conley, we made it by 7:30.
Ahead of Dorsey at the shipper, also on a pickup, was Davis Transfer driver Anthony Adams. As we waited to get loaded, Adams told us of the fire we’d missed on the northwest section of the I-285 loop that had traffic at a virtual standstill for about six miles. Adams, like Dorsey, had expected this of Atlanta at rush hour, so he called on stores of patience and rode it out. Earlier in the week, though, when a container truck’s accident on I-26 between Charleston and Columbia, S.C., backed up westbound traffic for 30 miles, Adams chose an alternate route around the mishap.
Accidents and other traffic incidents, according to American Transportation Research Institute data from 2008, cause 25 percent of the congestion on the nation’s roadways, following bottlenecks at 40 percent. After weather, the fourth most significant contributor to congestion is road construction, which was active this summer because of federal stimulus spending.
As more states, like Tennessee, schedule roadwork at night to avoid creating congestion problems, the work-zone delay invariably slows those who choose to run at night to avoid daytime congestion headaches, such as Dorsey. “The load I have tonight, for instance,” he said. “It’s only four hours from Atlanta to Nashville — if I have the hours to move it, why not move it at night, do my 10 hours in Nashville and be staged perfectly for a morning delivery?”
When Dorsey’s truck was finally loaded with pallets of bagged mortar mix bound for a Nashville Home Depot just after 9 p.m., we encountered a brief stop in traffic near a night construction zone at the I-20/I-285 junction and more construction nearing Murfreesboro before arriving back in Music City.
By Todd Dills
The American Transportation Research Institute in 2009 began monitoring congestion at 100 freight-significant bottlenecks. The top 20 are ranked on a “Congestion Index,” which measures average 24-hour weekday mph.
1. Chicago, I-290 at I-90/94 30 mph
2. Chicago, I-90 at I-94 (north) 34 mph
3. Fort Lee, N.J., I-95 at SR-4 32 mph
4. Austin, Texas, I-35 35 mph
5. Atlanta, I-285 at I-85 (north) 47 mph
6. St. Louis, Mo., I-70 at I-64 (west) 42 mph
7. Los Angeles, SR-60 at SR-57 48 mph
8. Dallas, I-45 at I-30, 44 mph
9. Chicago, I-90 at I-94 (south) 47 mph
10. Philadelphia, I-76 at U.S. 30 36 mph
11. Louisville, Ky., I-65 at I-64/I-71 46 mph
12. Las Vegas, Nev., I-15 at I-515 38 mph
13. Kansas City, Mo., I-70 at I-670 at U.S. 71 45 mph
14. Houston, I-45 at U.S. 59 42 mph
15. Atlanta, I-75 at I-285 (north) 49 mph
16. Baton Rouge, La., I-10 at I-110 46 mph
17. New Haven, Ct., I-95 at I-91 42 mph
18. Minneapolis-St. Paul, I-35W at I-494 47 mph
19. Brooklyn, I-278 at Belt Parkway 37 mph
20. Washington, D.C., I-495 at I-66 44 mph
Fewer places to park
By Max Kvidera
When truckers complain about traffic congestion, they point to the shortage of safe parking spots as part of the problem. Drivers often have to stay on the road longer in search of a parking place. Many truckstops on heavily traveled highways fill up by mid-afternoon weekdays, drivers say.
Truckers shouldn’t expect much relief in years ahead based on recent trends. The number of truckstops with at least two showers and five parking spaces has declined to 2,174 in 2010 from 2,309 in 2005, according to Robert de Vos, president of TR Publishing, publishers of the National Truck Stop Directory.
While the total number of facilities has decreased, the share owned or operated by the major chains has increased. A prime example is Love’s Travel Centers. Over the past six years, the company added about 60 truckstops — most of them new facilities, says Jenny Love Meyer, director of communications. This year the company has developed 14 new truckstops (while picking up 26 locations when Pilot and Flying J merged) and plans to build a couple more by yearend, she says. In 2011 the company has plans for 18-20 more locations.
“We’re atypical in the fact we’ve been aggressively growing,” Love Meyer says.
Truckers shut out of truckstops often can’t turn to state-run rest areas and welcome centers for short-term parking. Many states are considering closing rest areas to save money on maintenance. New Mexico is contemplating closing about half of approximately 30 facilities along Interstates. Virginia reopened 19 facilities earlier this year that had been closed in 2009.
Several states are looking at hiring private companies to operate rest facilities. Georgia has opened bidding to private companies to run the state’s 26 facilities in return for advertising and sponsorship revenue.
If truckstops and rest areas aren’t available, truckers have to improvise and park where they can find space. In 2009 Jason Rivenburg was parked at an abandoned gas station in South Carolina waiting to make an early morning delivery when he was murdered in his truck in a robbery attempt. Last year, U.S. Senate and House bills were introduced to provide $120 million over six years to fund a pilot program to help states establish long-term truck parking facilities. The bills, known as Jason’s Law, remain in committee.