Congestion Crisis

June 1, 2002
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the U.S. is overrun with traffic congestion. Yet it may take one to solve the problem. First, some stark facts. In terms of wasted time and fuel, traffic congestion cost the economy $78 billion in 1999, more than three-and-one-half times the $22 billion figure cited for 1982. On top of that, while the number of vehicle miles traveled increased

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the U.S. is overrun with traffic congestion. Yet it may take one to solve the problem.

First, some stark facts. In terms of wasted time and fuel, traffic congestion cost the economy $78 billion in 1999, more than three-and-one-half times the $22 billion figure cited for 1982. On top of that, while the number of vehicle miles traveled increased 123% over the past 30 years, road capacity increased a paltry 5%.

This fistful of bad news comes from The Road Information Program (TRIP), a Washington, DC-based advocacy group that analyzed traffic congestion data compiled by the Texas Transportation Institute and the federal Dept. of Transportation (DOT). While TRIP looked at the effect of congestion on both commercial and non-commercial vehicles, its findings bode particularly ill for trucking.

TRIP found that 72% of the goods shipped nationwide are transported by truck, with an additional 12% transported by courier service, for a total of 84% traveling via roads. To make matters worse, freight shipments in most parts of the country are expected to double over the next 20 years, by which time 82% will be carried by truck.

And just as demand shifts into high gear, trucking's ability to transport freight efficiently is jeopardized by rising traffic congestion. In the past 20 years, congestion-related traffic delays per person increased 236%. And while highway travel jumped 72%, road mileage increased only 6%, according to TRIP.

“Increasing traffic congestion nationwide threatens to put the brakes on the nation's economic growth,” says William Wilkins, TRIP's executive director. “Traffic congestion slows the delivery of products and services that serve as the economic backbone of our nation…(making it) more difficult and more expensive to move goods from manufacturing and service centers, ports and rail depots to the rest of the country.”


Congestion is reaching troubling levels in three areas of freight movement: border crossings or gateways between the U.S. and Canada and Mexico; roads and highways around major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City; and key freight corridors such as Interstate 95 and 81 on the Eastern seaboard.

Gary Maring, director of DOT's Office of Freight Management and Operations (OFMO), adds that over-the-road trucking volumes are projected to double by 2020, increasing the pressure for capacity. “Border crossings are especially a point of concern, from a capacity and security perspective, post-Sept. 11,” he says. “International trade is growing much faster than domestic trade, and much of it must pass through ports and border gateways that need more capacity.”

The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, for example, already handle a quarter of the country's waterborne international trade, and the volume in California is expected to triple over the next two decades, says Maring. “Much of that freight then moves to the East Coast through Chicago via rail and truck combinations — with bottlenecks all along the way. Heavier volume will exacerbate the problem,” he says.

For example, an ocean freight container can be transported from the West Coast to Chicago in 40 hours, only to spend 48 hours in terminal delay getting through Chicago. Just transferring rail containers from one intermodal yard to another puts an additional 14,000 trucks on Chicago's streets and highways every day. And remember, these are streets that trucks must share with growing automotive traffic.

“Demand for both passenger and freight transportation continues to grow steadily and it already strains the capacity of much of our existing infrastructure,” said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta in a recent speech. Mineta pointed out that since they're using the same roads, the demands of both groups can conflict.

Meeting those diverse — and at times opposing — needs is complicated by the cultural differences between the nation's transportation modes. “We've built an extensive transportation system based on the strength of individual modes — air, marine, highway, and rail — with each having its own culture and constituency,” said Mineta. “Now, we face the challenge of blending these separate constituencies into a single national [integrated] transportation system. “It must integrate the individual modes…in a manner that is economically efficient and environmentally sound.”

That's a tall order, admits Maring, but it is one that needs to be carried out in order to avoid even bigger congestion problems in the future. “In our talks with the trucking industry, everyone recognizes that there is more than enough freight to go around,” Maring says. He points out, however, that there's an uneven distribution of intermodal capacity. “Right now, most intermodal operations are located on the West Coast; intermodal on the East Coast is under-developed.”

For trucking companies, congestion is rapidly moving past the annoyance stage to one that is affecting the bottom line. According to Kirk Williams, vp-freight management for APL Logistics, how fleets deal with congestion has become a factor in negotiations with shippers, as well as third-party logistics providers.

“When we build routes for customers, we definitely take traffic congestion into consideration,” Williams explains. “It's is on our list of top-ten business concerns, but not yet in the top five. We have to deal with congestion as part of doing business.”

According to Williams, however, traffic congestion does have an impact on how freight networks are laid out. APL Logistics looks at night deliveries, for example, as an option for freight routed through major metropolitan areas or along heavy freight corridors.

Economic penalties must also be factored in. “Dell Computer, for example, has penalties in its contract if freight is delayed,” Williams notes. “As Dell and other manufacturers work with a just-in-time (JIT) delivery scheme, they need parts to arrive on time at their factories. As the transportation provider, we need to have Plan B and Plan C in place in case Plan A is held up by traffic congestion or something else.”

Williams says there are a number of ways technology can play a role in alleviating problems caused by congestion. First, engineers at APL Logistics use computer models to develop and test routes based on factors such as traffic flow and vehicle speed For example, the engineers can slow a truck's speed to 30 mph from 55 mph to see how long it takes to make a delivery, allowing them to plan a route that will enable the driver to make deliveries on time.

Satellite tracking can be used to alert customers when congestion-related delays occur. “If we alert the customers that a shipment will be late by “x” number of minutes or hours, they can make adjustments at their end.”

However, Williams warns that winning business depends on a fleet's ability to manage the problems created by traffic congestion. “For example, we measure our carriers' service time; if they don't maintain it, we drop them. We work closely with our carriers in terms of how they handle congestion because it impacts service time.


A mix of capacity and technology solutions are being put into play to try and ease current and future traffic congestion.

Creating more capacity is perhaps the most obvious choice. However, it's also a very expensive and time-consuming undertaking. Many of the most congested spots in the nation — border crossings between the Northeastern U.S. and Canada are a good example — have limited space for additional roads. That's why recent efforts are aimed at creating freight-only corridors to ease traffic flow.

One such effort is the Alameda Corridor in California, a six-year, $2.4-billion intermodal project designed to prevent delays in auto and truck traffic in the Los Angeles area. The Alameda Corridor improves rail and highway access to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach by creating dedicated rail and truck corridors to move freight from the ports and through the Los Angeles area. The corridor also minimizes the number of rail-grade crossings trucks have to make.

“By eliminating conflicts among freight trains, passenger trains, truck traffic and street traffic in this heavily traveled area, the Alameda Corridor also improves safety, eases delays, and reduces air pollution from idling cars and trucks all at once,” says DOT's Mineta. “In addition, as we begin working with Congress to develop legislation reauthorizing America's surface transportation programs, the Alameda Corridor provides a powerful paradigm for the intermodal infrastructure investments we want to encourage.”

A different type of effort is taking place at Niagara Falls, located on the New York State/Ontario border. Whirlpool International Truck Bridge (U.S.A.) Inc. is a public/private partnership that has purchased the former Niagara River railway bridge for the purpose of turning it into a route dedicated to heavy trucks.

“Looking ahead, we see the day when a dedicated three-lane roadway over the former railway bridge will expedite truck traffic and alleviate growing congestion at this key border crossing,” says William Truesdale Jr., president of WITB. The $220-million redevelopment project is expected to take five years to complete.

Technology-based solutions, says OFMO's Maring, include efforts to create “smart” border technology with Canada and Mexico to pre-clear cargo before it reaches crossing points, an approach that also addresses the enhanced security concerns that have emerged since Sept. 11.

One such initiative is the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT), an initiative to guard against terrorist activities without unnecessarily impeding international trade. Businesses and carriers involved in C-TPAT must police themselves at international borders in exchange for a quicker trip through Customs. The program will establish dedicated commercial lanes wherever possible at highway crossing points, assign account managers to facilitate the traffic and reduce inspections, as well as provide other benefits for participants.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, international trade suffered a serious slowdown as U.S. Customs tightened security at border crossings. Noting that more trade crosses Detroit's Ambassador Bridge in a year than occurs between the U.S. and Japan altogether, Michigan Gov. John Engler said C-TPAT aims to “put in safeguards without causing undue traffic delays.”

Mapping software is another technology carriers are using to help them navigate around congestion points. Software maker Rand McNally allows carriers to download road construction information and overlay it on truck routes, helping carriers avoid congestion hot spots.

Rand McNally gathers the data from state, local, and federal groups every two weeks and organizes it so fleets can determine how long such construction might delay their trucks and how they can detour around it. According to Amy Krouse, director of marketing for Rand McNally's transportation division, “The benefit to the fleet is that they can adjust their estimated time of arrival, which is especially important if they have set delivery windows for particular customers.”

Krouse adds that Rand McNally is looking to add what she calls “dynamic” traffic flow data to the system so fleets can overlay traffic congestion in real time over their truck routes. The biggest obstacle is finding a consistent source of up-to-the-minute traffic conditions across the country.

“We can download the traffic situation in the top 50 metropolitan areas in the U.S., but not information about highway accidents in rural Montana,” she says. “Also, we have to figure out how to get real-time traffic data to the driver, whether by cellphone, handheld computers, etc. In most of the trucking niches we work with — longhaul, regional or owner-operators — providing dynamic traffic information for their routes is becoming more critical every day.”

Most of the capacity- and technology-based solutions are really still in their infancy, however, gaining ground at a much slower pace than the traffic congestion they are meant to address.

There have also been monetary setbacks. President Bush has called for an $8.6-billion cut in federal highway funding this year in light of shrinking tax revenues and the cost of the war on terrorism. And that cut hits as individual states wrangle with significant revenue shortfalls that have forced large cuts in their transportation budgets.

“This is a double whammy in many areas because it means that state departments of transportation could lose both state and federal funding for needed transportation programs,” says TRIP's Wilkins. “Those cuts would hurt their ability to relieve traffic congestion, improve traffic safety and security and stimulate economic recovery.”

In the end, fleets have a long road ahead of them in terms of dealing with traffic congestion; it's a problem that won't be solved any time soon.

Troubled Bridges

As if overcrowded roads and highways weren't enough, another growing congestion issue is the deterioration of bridges in the United States — especially those that carry commercial truck traffic.

According to a review by The Road Information Program (TRIP) of bridge data compiled by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) found that about one in four of the country's major bridges carrying over 50,000 vehicles per day is deficient and in need of repair or replacement.

TRIP said its study revealed that 14% of U.S. bridges are structurally deficient, showing significant deterioration to decks and other major components, with another 14% are functionally obsolete. That means 14% of U.S. bridges no longer meet modern design standards for safety such as lane widths or alignment with connecting roads, or no longer are adequate for the volume of traffic being carried, says William Wilkins, TRIP's executive director.

“Our bridges are a visible sign of an aging and overburdened roadway system,” he explains. “Travel by all vehicles is expected to increase 50% by 2020, with travel by commercial trucks increasing 90%, according to FHWA forecasts. This significant increase in traffic volumes, particularly of commercial trucks, will accelerate bridge deterioration.”

See this story and more online at

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean previously reported and commented on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry. Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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