Transportation Crisis Seen Looming in Face of Growing Freight Demands

U.S. transportation infrastructure requires investment well beyond current levels to maintain performance as traffic increases, bottlenecks grow, AASHTO Study Says

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Des Moines — July 14, 2010 — In 10 years, an additional 1.8 million trucks will be on the road; in 20 years, for every two trucks today, another one will be added. Already bottlenecks on major highways used by truckers every day are adding millions of dollars to the cost of food, goods, and manufacturing equipment for American consumers. As a result, according to a new report, the transportation system that supports the movement of freight across America is facing a crisis.

At joint news conferences last week in Harrisburg, Pa., Des Moines and Memphis, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) released "Unlocking Freight," an analysis of America's freight system that finds the nation's highways, railroads, ports, waterways and airports require investments well beyond current levels to maintain — much less improve — their performance.

The report identifies key projects in 30 states that would improve freight delivery and dependability, and it offers a three-point plan to address what is needed to relieve freight congestion, generate jobs and improve productivity.

"No Transportation, No Economy"

"The simple fact is: no transportation, no economy. They are inseparable," said Larry L. "Butch" Brown, AASHTO president and executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation. "We must invest to maintain and strengthen the American 'transconomy.'"

Speaking at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Valley Conference of State Highway and Transportation Officials (MVC) in Des Moines, Brown said: "Congress must invest in all transportation modes, from waterways to roads and rails, to get us where we need to be as a competitive nation. Millions of jobs and our nation's long-term economic health depend on it."

Despite more long-distance freight being moved by intermodal rail, the report finds that trucks will still carry 74 percent of the load. On average, 10,500 trucks a day travel some segments of the interstate highway system today. By 2035, this will increase to 22,700 commercial trucks for these portions of the interstate, with the most heavily used segments seeing upwards of 50,000 trucks a day.

Yet between 1980 and 2006, traffic on the interstate highway system increased by 150 percent while interstate capacity increased by only 15 percent. The report identifies the 1,000 miles of most heavily traveled highways used by trucks.

The Price of Failure

In a related news conference releasing the report in Pennsylvania, Governor Edward Rendell stood at the Norfolk Southern Intermodal Facility in Harrisburg and said: "This report outlines what's at stake if we fail to invest to meet the growing demands on our transportation infrastructure. This includes the roads, rails and seaports we need to move raw materials and goods to market and keep our economy globally competitive."

Rendell noted that as a gateway to the Northeast, Pennsylvania gets a large volume of truck traffic. "In fact, Pennsylvania is one of six states — along with Arkansas, California, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas — that collectively account for 88 percent of the most heavily used truck routes."

"It's unfortunate that many of the 35 million travelers who hit the road for the Fourth of July holiday this past weekend spent hours of their vacation time stuck in traffic," said John Horsley AASHTO's executive director. "Ten thousand commercial trucks face that kind of gridlock every day."

Crucial to Economy

MVC President and Iowa Department of Transportation Director Nancy Richardson said at the Iowa news conference that her state's agricultural and manufacturing supply chain is crucial to the economic recovery, stability and growth of Iowa and the nation. States "need greater investment and sound federal transportation polices to allow them to expand capacity when and where necessary."

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Thomas Sorel, MVC vice president and Minnesota DOT commissioner, cited the Port of Duluth-Superior as an example of hundreds of freight-related projects in "desperate need" of greater investment. "It's one of the largest inland seaports in the world, bringing in iron ore and coal docks, grain elevators and specialized cargo facilities lining the industrial waterfronts of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin. Yet the infrastructure is currently deficient in terms of capacity, physical condition, and safety," Sorel said.

"The nation's multimodal freight transportation system directly affects economic development, current and future jobs, and the quality of life in our communities," said Ohio DOT Director Jolene M. Molitoris, MVC incoming vice president. "Today the nation's freight transportation system supports more than 10 million jobs, from couriers, truckers, laborers, shippers, railroad conductors and mechanics to postal carriers, warehouse operators and stock clerks. Now, think about how many more jobs will be added as the industry grows over time and you begin to see yet another reason why this study is so important."

Call for National Plan

In Memphis, Gerald Nicely, Tennessee Department of Transportation commissioner, hosted a news conference along with Dan Flowers, the head of the Arkansas DOT, and other state and local officials, industry and businesses. Nicely said that to accommodate predicted growth in freight movement, "we need to think nationally, regionally and on a multi-modal level. Central to this effort should be the creation of a National Multimodal Freight Plan to ensure that transportation investments are coordinated and made where most needed. By linking trucks, rail, waterway transport, and aviation, freight can be moved more efficiently throughout the nation."

Each year, 147 million tons of freight pass through Tennessee by way of trucks, rail cars and barges. Nearly half of Tennessee's gross domestic product comes from the movement of goods, and more than half of the statewide employment is in goods-dependent industries. The segment of I-40 through Tennessee and Arkansas alone accounts for nearly one-third of the nation's busiest truck miles.

A current strain on the movement of freight in the Tri-State region is the lack of vehicular and rail crossings along the Mississippi River, according to Nicely. Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas are currently working to develop a third Mississippi River bridge crossing — dubbed the Southern Gateway Project. Environmental studies on the project are now underway and include consideration of a multi-use bridge that would include both vehicle and rail access.

"Unlocking Freight" is the second in a series of reports generated by AASHTO to identify the need to increase capacity in our transportation system. More information, along with state examples of freight capacity needs, is available at The report "Unlocking Freight" can be downloaded as a PDF at that site.