Diet Wrong

March 21, 2007

The Interstate Highway System just turned 50, and its waistline looks like it did at age 20.

This anorexic approach to increasing highway capacity is close to entering a crisis mode. Some in Washington, D.C., were asking for an intervention during a House Subcommittee on Highways, Transit and Pipelines meeting.

The Interstate Highway System just turned 50, and its waistline looks like it did at age 20.

This anorexic approach to increasing highway capacity is close to entering a crisis mode. Some in Washington, D.C., were asking for an intervention during a House Subcommittee on Highways, Transit and Pipelines meeting.

Future numbers are staggering. The American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials has projected by 2025 freight shipments on the nation’s highway system will double; shipments by rail will increase 70% or more; and container shipments will quadruple. U.S. DOT 2002 figures indicated that 525,000 commercial trucks traveled 44 billion miles on trips greater than 200 miles and carried 3 billion tons of goods worth more than $4 trillion.

Some, however, are injecting more panic into the dilemma. John Bowe, regional vice president of APL Logistics, believes a crisis zone will emerge as early as 2008, and at the House T&I Committee hearing U.S. Undersecretary for Policy at the U.S. DOT Jeffrey Shane said, “We have to address supply chain issues, and we have to address them now.”

“I think in some parts of the country we probably are already in a crisis mode,” Darrin Roth, director of highway operations at the American Trucking Associations (ATA), told Roads & Bridges. “Particularly in southern California and the Northeast, where there are constant problems with congestion.”

Fattening congestion times nationwide is the increase in bottlenecks, which cost trucking companies 243 million hours and $7.8 billion in 2004, according to a study by Cambridge Systematics Inc. and Battelle Memorial Institute released in February. The research projected a dismal scene on the interstate system in a few years.

By 2016 trucking companies are forcast to haul 13 billion tons of freight, which could stretch the bottleneck crisis to catastrophic levels in some areas. The ATA believes 3.7 million “18-wheelers” will be driving the highways during that time, up from 2.7 million in 2004.

Roth said that while Congress has passed record levels of federal funding, most of it is not going toward loosening congestion in urban areas. “We know where the problems are, but the way the federal highway program has evolved that money is being spread throughout the country and not focused where it is really needed,” he said.

Roth also thought Congress should take a serious look at size and weight regulations for the trucking industry, “because there is some potential for increasing the capacity of the highway system without expanding the highway system by simply putting more freight on fewer trucks.”

The idea of truck-only lanes is being tossed around Atlanta and southern California, but according to Roth there are few places in the U.S. where they would be a viable solution.

“In southern California the truck lanes would actually be elevated. That may be prohibitively expensive, but you have to weigh that against the cost of congestion,” he said.

Recommendations on how to avoid the freight crisis are to be submitted to the National Surface Transportation Policy Review and Study Commission by July 2007.

N.C., Va. may share toll plaza

Flat revenues and rising construction costs are pushing legislators in North Carolina and Virginia to consider a joint toll operation on I-95 at their border. Legislation was passed in Virginia in April, and a similar bill was proposed in North Carolina in mid-May, the Charlotte News & Observer reported.

Some sections of I-95 in North Carolina have not been changed since the pavement was laid between 1956 and 1980, and the interstate needs a $4 billion overhaul, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT). The NCDOT said the deteriorating pavement needs to be replaced and widened from four lanes to eight. Also, all 188 interstate bridges need to be replaced, said the NCDOT. Nearly half of those bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

The interstate is the main north-south highway for the East Coast, from Maine to Florida. It carries 32,000 vehicles per day—with 30% heavy trucks—near the border with South Carolina, and traffic is expected to double by 2030.

The plan is for up to $5 to be collected from every car passing a shared toll plaza by the Virginia-North Carolina Interstate Toll Road Compact. The two states would split the projected $130 million per year revenue to fund improvements to I-95. Truck tolls have not been set and would add to the total.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley opposes placing tolls on existing interstate highways; tolls on new roads and bridges are allowed in the state. In fact, the state needs federal permission to put tolls on existing interstates. Both North Carolina and Virginia have pending requests for such permission.

The proposal is opposed by some citizens of the states as well. They feel the tolls would deter tourism, a vital part of the region’s economy.

“We don’t need tolls thrown up on I-95, when I-95 is a lifeline for our community,” said Lori Medlin, director of the Halifax County Tourism Development Authority, the News & Observer reported.

Circ’s expanded EIS needs more time, money

A do-over of the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Circumferential Highway in Vermont is growing in cost and schedule, the Burlington Free Press reported.

The expanded EIS was required for the project to move forward because a federal judge ruled in 2004 that the original environmental review was inadequate.

The Circumferential Highway, or the “Circ,” is a proposed ring road through the suburbs of Chittenden County. Proponents say it would relieve congestion and spur economic growth. Opponents say the highway would be an unnecessary development of a relatively rural area.

After 23 public meetings and more than 300 written comments, the Louis Berger Group, the consultant preparing the EIS, is now weighing the merits of eight alternatives for a project that would typically yield three or four alternatives.

All of the alternatives have merit, though, according to David Dill, deputy Vermont transportation secretary. He asserted, “There’s more alternatives because there wasn’t sufficient justification to say we ought to throw this one out.”

For a section of the proposed highway from Williston to Essex, the state had budgeted $5.3 million to redo the environmental review and expected it to be finished by the end of this year. Now the estimated cost has grown to $6.3 million and the completion date has slipped to spring 2007.

Kendall named director of funding study panel

Quintin C. Kendall has been named executive director of the Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, a federal commission to study new ways to pay for the nation’s highway and transit systems.

“This commission will create the roadmap we need to navigate the financial future of our highway and transit networks,” said Mineta.

Mineta planned to convene the first meeting of the 12-member commission on Wednesday, May 24. He said he would task the commission with finding solutions that not only raise revenue for highway and transit projects but also reduce the cost of congestion by focusing more on system performance.

Congestion in the crosshairs

Highway, freight and aviation congestion is the target of a new national initiative announced in mid-May by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta. Mineta called congestion one of the single largest threats to the economy today, and he called for a new approach.

“Congestion kills time, wastes fuel and costs money,” Mineta said in remarks to the National Retail Federation.

He noted that America loses an estimated $200 billion a year due to freight bottlenecks and delayed deliveries. Mineta added that consumers lose 3.7 billion hours and 2.3 billion gal of fuel sitting in traffic jams and that airline delays waste $9.4 billion a year.

The new initiative, called the National Strategy to Reduce Congestion on America’s Transportation Network, provides a blueprint for federal, state and local officials to tackle congestion. Mineta noted that over the coming months, the U.S. DOT will focus its resources, funding, staff and technology to cut traffic jams, relieve freight bottlenecks and reduce flight delays.

The initiative will seek Urban Partnership Agreements with a handful of communities willing to demonstrate new congestion-relief strategies and encourages states to pass legislation giving the private sector a broader opportunity to invest in transportation. It calls for more widespread deployment of new operational technologies and practices that end traffic tie-ups, designates new interstate “corridors of the future,” targets port and border congestion and expands aviation capacity.

AGC outlines a plan for immigration reform

The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) supports an immigration policy that would include increased border security, a guest-worker program and earned legalization.

“The first step to enacting effective immigration reform legislation is enforcing our borders, but that can’t be the final step,” said Stephen E. Sandherr, chief executive officer of AGC. “Congress needs to produce legislation that also provides a new guest-worker program and earned legalization.”

Part of the motivation for AGC’s stand is its interest in ensuring the industry continues to have a work force.

AGC believes that any legislation should provide for an effective new guest-worker program that would allow U.S. construction companies to recruit immigrant workers when U.S. workers are not available to fill their needs.

AGC also supports a path to earned legalization that would include paying fines, learning English, staying employed, paying taxes and completing criminal background checks before applying for a potential green card.

AGC sees healthy economy except for materials supply

“The construction engine was firing on all cylinders in March,” Ken Simonson, chief economist of the AGC, said in a May 1 statement. He was commenting on the Census Bureau’s report that construction spending in March was estimated at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $1.2 trillion, the ninth straight record month and an 8.4% increase from March 2005.

“On a year-to-date basis, which discounts the odd weather patterns of the first three months this year, the gain was 9.2% compared to the January-March 2005 period,” Simonson said. “Moreover, there was great balance among the major sectors. Private nonresidential construction was up 10.6% year-to-date, while private residential and public construction each gained 8.8%.

“On the public side as well, almost every category was higher than in the first quarter of 2005,” Simonson added. “The two leading categories, educational and highway and street construction, were up 14 and 7.7%, respectively, while the third biggest segment, sewage and waste disposal, was 28% higher.

“However, the industry is being buffeted by extreme price increases for a host of materials,” Simonson concluded. “Asphalt, diesel fuel, copper, polyvinyl chloride pipe and other plastics, concrete and gypsum costs are all advancing at double-digit rates. Worse, contractors have already reported shortages of cement, with asphalt shortages expected soon. And today, the Institute for Supply Management said some members reported steel shortages in April.”

S.C. in financial pinch

South Carolina may face a 22% drop in transportation funding beginning in July 2007, and in the recent past the state legislature has been reluctant to allocate more money, the Greenville News reported.

South Carolina DOT officials met with commissioners on May 19 and told them they expect to receive $1 billion at most for the fiscal year beginning July 2007, a decline from the $1.286 billion they estimate for the year starting July 2006.

There were multiple explanations for the shortfall. Flat fuel-tax revenues, lower-then-expected federal funding and higher prices for construction materials such as petroleum certainly contributed to the state’s financial problems.

SCDOT Chairman Tee Hooper has said he thought the agency had committed to too many construction projects.

Others in the state government have been critical of the SCDOT for actions they saw as wasteful, the Greenville News reported, such as spending money on a management consultant or purchasing SUVs for top SCDOT officials.

Betty Mabry, executive director of SCDOT, put it simply:

“We’re in this position because we built a lot of projects. And we expected $100 million more in federal money.”

—edited by Allen Zeyher

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