Pulling for trucks

March 16, 2004

A national freight policy is sorely needed to address our country’s No. 1 transportation issue: our overburdened highway system. Congress has an opportunity to establish a national freight policy when it reauthorizes the current federal surface transportation legislation.

A national freight policy is sorely needed to address our country’s No. 1 transportation issue: our overburdened highway system. Congress has an opportunity to establish a national freight policy when it reauthorizes the current federal surface transportation legislation. An effective national freight policy would outline the improvements needed to safely and efficiently accommodate future growth in the demand for freight movement in the U.S. A recent report, “America’s Rolling Warehouses: The impact of increased trucking on economic development, congestion and traffic safety,” by TRIP concludes that commercial trucking is expected to increase by 49% by 2020. This projection continues a trend: travel of large trucks more than doubled between 1980 and 2002. Yet during that time, total lane miles of public roads in the U.S. increased by just 4%.

Increasing traffic congestion threatens business efficiency, as many businesses rely on logistics processes that require a high level of reliability in the timing of freight movement. A comprehensive 2002 report from the Transportation Research Board found that some U.S. businesses are expected to respond to increasing congestion by moving some facilities to less-congested parts of the U.S. or to other countries.

The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) reports that urban traffic delays have tripled in the nation’s largest urban areas from 1982 to 2001. TTI reports that the additional time needed to complete an urban trip at rush hour has increased from 13% in 1982 to 39% in 2001.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates that 46% of the nation’s urban major highways will be congested during peak periods by 2020 compared with 28% in 1998. The FHWA also estimates that the percentage of urban interstates that will carry at least 10,000 large trucks per day will increase to 69% by 2020 compared to 27% in 1998.

A national freight policy also would help the country make improvements needed to reduce fatal accidents involving large trucks and passenger vehicles. The TRIP report found that there were 26,065 people killed in crashes involving large trucks in the U.S. from 1998 to 2002, including 3,647 occupants of large trucks and 22,418 people who were occupants of passenger vehicles or non-motorists. Nearly 4,500 people (4,484), excluding large truck occupants, were killed annually in accidents involving large trucks from 1998 to 2002. Traffic accidents involving large trucks (gross vehicle weight greater than 10,000 lb) also are responsible for one-out-of-eight traffic fatalities nationally. While accidents involving large trucks are more likely to result in fatalities than accidents between other vehicles, the drivers of passenger vehicles are far more likely than the driver of a large truck to be at fault in a fatal accident between a passenger vehicle and a large truck, according to an AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study.

TRIP offers the following proposals on improving freight delivery that could be included in a national freight policy:

• Additional highway capacity. Most additional roadway capacity that is likely to be provided is in the form of widening of existing roadways, improved alignments and improved intersections and interchanges, which will allow the movement of additional traffic;
• Car-truck separation. The construction of truck-only lanes, largely along existing highways, offers significant safety and congestion benefits. Truck-only lanes are most feasible in areas with significant traffic congestion or an increasing truck/car mix; and
• Road safety improvements. Safety improvements, particularly on two-lane rural roads, would be very helpful in reducing large truck/passenger vehicle accidents. Improvements such as the construction of passing lanes, making lanes wider, reduced curves, better intersection design and improved markings and lighting would likely reduce the number of serious large truck/private vehicle accidents.

Rapidly increasing truck and passenger vehicle travel is occurring on a highway system that lacks sufficient capacity to accommodate such use. As a result, urban traffic congestion threatens to forestall economic development in many regions across the U.S., continues to erode economic productivity nationwide and makes our nation less able to compete globally.

About The Author: Wilkins is executive director of TRIP, Washington, D.C.

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