Clogged Arteries

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.

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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.”

“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
  2. CITY: Atlanta
    LOCATION: I-285 at I-85 Interchange (Spaghetti Junction)
    DAILY TRUCKS: 27,100
    ANNUAL DELAY: 1.64 million hours
  3. CITY: Phoenix
    LOCATION: I-17 (Black Canyon Freeway) AT I-10 Interchange to Cactus
    DAILY TRUCKS: 28,900
    ANNUAL DELAY: 1.60 million hours
  4. CITY: Chicago area
    LOCATION: I-90/94 at I-290 Interchange (Circle Interchange)
    DAILY TRUCKS: 26,300
    ANNUAL DELAY: 1.54 million hours
  5. CITY: Los Angeles
    LOCATION: San Bernardino Freeway
    DAILY TRUCKS: 34,900
    ANNUAL DELAY: 1.52 million hours
  6. CITY: Chicago area
    LOCATION: I-94 (Dan Ryan Expressway) at I-90 Skyway Split
    DAILY TRUCKS: 31,600
    ANNUAL DELAY: 1.51 million hours
  7. CITY: Atlanta
    LOCATION: I-285 at I-75 Interchange
    DAILY TRUCKS: 25,700
    ANNUAL DELAY: 1.50 million hours
  8. CITY: Los Angeles
    LOCATION: S.R. 134 at S.R. 2 Interchange
    DAILY TRUCKS: 29,600
    ANNUAL DELAY: 1.49 million hours
  9. CITY: Charlotte
    LOCATION: I-77 at Tryon Road
    DAILY TRUCKS: 29,600
    ANNUAL DELAY: 1.49 million hours
  10. CITY: Los Angeles
    LOCATION: Long Beach Freeway
    DAILY TRUCKS: 27,500
    ANNUAL DELAY: 1.38 million hours

    October 2005 Federal Highway Administration study: An Initial Assessment of Freight Bottlenecks on Highways.