Stuck: Jams in major traffic arteries add to infrastructure woes | Crain's Washington D.C.

Stuck: Jams in major traffic arteries add to infrastructure woes

Interstate 85 in Atlanta | Photo courtesy of Doug Turnbull/WSB-TV via ATRI

Traffic jams and bottlenecks cost the U.S. trucking industry billions of dollars a year, adding untold fees to the prices businesses and consumers pay for goods.

The American Transportation Research Institute recently released a list of the 100 worst bottlenecks across the country, based on GPS data, with some of the worst problems in the Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia areas.

“Traffic volume has exceeded the design factor of the roadways,” said Kevin Stewart, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association (PMTA). “Improvements need to be made to traffic flow, especially at entrance and exit ramps. Additional lanes would help relieve those bottlenecks, [but] in southeast Pennsylvania, there’s no room to add lanes.”

Louis Campion, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association (MMTA), said that between 2014 and 2015, the state saw a 25 percent increase in the cost of congestion.

“The cost is not going down, very clearly,” Campion said. “There are ancillary costs beyond the time waste that impacts our ability to deliver freight and everybody’s lifestyle.”

President Donald Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure spending program provides for just $200 billion in federal funds and relies instead on state and local governments and the private sector to finance the improvements.

Mike Dunn, deputy communications director for the Philadelphia mayor’s office, said Trump’s plan will have little impact on fixing urban infrastructure.

“While even nominally this offers cities only $10 billion a year, when considered alongside cuts to transportation hidden in the administration’s budget request, the White House is actually proposing that cities make do with $40 billion less in infrastructure funding between now and 2027,” Dunn said in an email response. “This is despite the fact America’s largest cities comprise 80 percent of the nation’s population, and last year the largest cities contributed over $16 trillion, or 85 percent, to the nation’s total economic output.”

Dunn went on to say that Philadelphia is “hold[ing out] hope for a significantly stronger commitment as the reality becomes clear, but in its current state, this plan signals apathy towards urban infrastructure to the point of negligence.”

Wasted time, wasted money

ARTI estimates that nationally, the time truck drivers must spend sitting in traffic is equal to what it would cost to pay 362,000 more drivers.

“That statistic grabs me,” the MMTA’s Campion said. “It means having to deliver more goods with fewer drivers or more drivers to deliver freight without an increase in volume. To my knowledge, that cost doesn’t even take in the environmental considerations regarding emissions and the like. And congestion certainly impacts safety costs.”

Mark Lundgren, vice president of van lines for Interstate Van Lines of Springfield, Va., said his drivers waste as much as four hours a day stuck in traffic.

“Our drivers for the most part are being paid hourly at the local level,” Lundgren said. “We call it windshield time, which means drivers and their crews are just sitting in the truck driving to their service point. That’s where the cost comes in.”

ATRI President and Chief Operating Officer Rebecca Brewster said congestion across the country is getting worse.

“In most cases, it’s the result of too many vehicles sharing the same space,” Brewster said. “In other locations, it’s poorly designed or maintained infrastructure or a matter of construction that is underway that ultimately will pay off — and that’s a good thing — but while it’s underway, it leads to more congestion.”

ATRI plans to release its annual analysis of the cost of this congestion in coming months. Last year’s report pegged the cost of lost productivity at $63.4 billion, amounting to 996 million hours of lost productivity. Some 91 percent of total congestion costs were concentrated in urban areas, the ATRI analysis indicated. The figures are expected to be even worse this year, Brewster said.

UPS spokesman Matthew O’Connor said UPS doesn’t break out costs for specific markets, but he noted that if every UPS vehicle were delayed due to congestion for five minutes per day every day, it would cost the company $114 million annually in additional operating fees.

Said ATRI’s Brewster: “Obviously when you have a cost that significant, the trucking industry can’t bear the costs alone. It means increased prices for consumers. When the trucking industry experiences such significant losses, it raises the price of goods.”

The two worst bottlenecks in the country are in Atlanta (Interstate 285 at I-85) and Fort Lee, N.J., (I-95 at State Road 4), according to ATRI’s data. In the Washington, D.C.–Baltimore area, I-695 at I-70 takes the No. 7 spot on the list, and the worst spot in the district itself is I-95/495, at No. 52. In Philly proper, the worst spot is I-96 at I-676, at No. 51. In all, eight Washington-area bottlenecks and four Philadelphia-area bottlenecks landed on the list.

Louis Campion said Maryland has made significant transportation improvements in recent years and has been looking for alternative transportation models to ease the number of vehicles on roadways.

“A lot of new state transportation dollars have come in in the past few years,” Campion said, citing increases in gasoline and diesel fuel taxes, providing the state with more flexibility. He said the need for more federal support remains, however, “so maybe we can have some real meaningful outcomes.”

The PMTA’s Stewart called for more sustainable funding mechanisms dedicated to infrastructure and indexed to keep up with the growth of traffic volumes.

“People are doing more shopping online. We also see an increase in volumes at ports. Some of that is due to the development of ports to accept bigger ships that carry more containerized cargo,” Stewart said.

Gail Toth, president of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association, said she doesn’t see much hope for improving the situation in New Jersey in the near future, especially since funding new transportation projects doesn’t seem to be a priority.

“There’s always been a lack of money for transportation projects,” Toth said. “Our [national] infrastructure needs have never kept up [with growth]. As we grow, the infrastructure doesn’t grow. We build a lot of things, but we don’t require the infrastructure to be addressed.”

Mike Dunn of the Philadelphia mayor’s office said the city is hopeful that recurring bottlenecks within the city can be addressed through site-specific projects.

“We are hoping to identify measures to improve information for freight operators in the short term, and to explore opportunities to improve logistical infrastructure in general,” Dunn said.

Interstate Van Lines’ Lundgren said a possible solution to the bottleneck problem would be to use traffic studies to manage traffic flow and just put vehicles out when congestion eases.

“But if our customers say they want us at 8 a.m., and the traffic study says 10 a.m. is a good time to go, you have to balance that,” Lundgren said. “The way we work, we just leave earlier. But that adds hours.”

Beyond the infrastructure and the number of vehicles on the road, Gail Toth cited the economy as a significant factor.

“As the economy grows, so does the need to transport the goods that are being sold and made,” she said. “It’s positive in one way. The unfortunate thing is it creates more congestion [as] more people go to work [and then buy things].”

March 6, 2018 - 5:44pm