July 1, 2010


Why our highways need our help.

Trucks remain the most efficient, preferred shipping method for virtually all consumer goods, as the United States recovers from the most financially devastating recession in the post-war era. Trucks were responsible for nearly 82 cents out of every dollar spent to move freight last year, and 68% of freight by volume moves on our National Highway System.

Simultaneously, the industry received news that trucking had the best safety record since the Department of Transportation (DOT) began tracking those figures in 1975. Truck-involved fatalities declined 12.3% in 2008, the largest year-over-year drop ever, while vehicle miles traveled increased.

That combination of efficiency, essentiality and safety has trucking poised for a robust recovery, except for one factor: highway funding.

Congress has not approved a new, long-term transportation bill since the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) expired at midnight on Sept. 30, 2009. Short-term extensions have left funding for countless transportation projects in jeopardy and the national Highway Trust Fund dangerously low, despite transfers from the General Fund.

American Trucking Associations (ATA) has told congressional leaders that the United States has been living off the transportation infrastructure built by past generations, and that our failure to keep up with the demands imposed on these systems by population and economic growth have weakened the nation’s competitive position. America’s aging infrastructure is in desperate need of repair and expansion. Only half of our nation’s major roads are in good condition, and one in four high-traffic urban roads is in poor condition. Additionally, 81% of our bridges were built in the 1970s or earlier. The American Transportation Research Institute and the Federal Highway Administration recently concluded a study of 100 bottlenecks using GPS technology and examined the severely detrimental effects of congestion on freight efficiency. Congestion costs, caused by inefficiencies in the system, are rapidly approaching $100 billion annually.

Dedicated transportation funding is an integral piece of the revitalization and repair puzzle. The return on investment is tremendous. Every dollar invested in the nation’s highway system yields $5.40 in economic benefits as a result of reduced delays, improved road conditions, increased safety and lower vehicle operating costs. A large portion of those savings can be achieved by funding highway improvements that will eliminate congestion in 437 urban areas identified in a 2007 Texas Transportation Institute study. Without that congestion, cars and trucks would reduce fuel consumption by 5.5%, or 2.9 billion gallons, each year, benefiting the environment and consumers’ wallets. Conversely, failing to address growing congestion will cause costs to rise, translating into higher consumer prices and slower job growth, weakening the United States’ ability to compete in the global economy. Before completion of the interstate highway system and deregulation of freight transport, logistics consumed about 16% of GDP. Today, logistics represent 10% of GDP, or a savings of more than $800 billion annually simply through transportation improvements.


Another issue confronting freight transportation is a lack of agreement among policy leaders about the future of infrastructure needs in our country.

The DOT continues emphasizing that they want to move freight off of our nation’s highways and back onto waterways and railroads. The department is pitching both marine highways and railroads as an environmentally friendly program to reduce traffic on congested roads and reduce greenhouse gases. Significant advances in new truck engines and the adoption of ultra low sulfur diesel means new trucks are already a very clean mode for moving freight. Through a strong partnership with engine manufacturers, new over-the-road truck engines far exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s diesel engine emission standards. The emissions of one new truck purchased 20 years ago are equal to the particulate matter emissions of 60 trucks using modern engines, and on-road diesel trucks account for less than 6% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. If a white cloth were held over the tailpipe of a new truck, the cloth would remain spotless.

The recently announced “America’s Marine Highway” program will task the DOT’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) with identifying rivers and coastal routes that could be used to bypass roads. The administration has already given out $58 million in marine highways grants and will add another $7 million in MARAD grants in late summer. Short sea transportation is gaining attention from lawmakers, but the economic advantage for shippers is yet to be seen.

Railroads are also receiving attention because of their perceived ability to take trucks off the road. The rail industry continues spending millions on advertising and lobbying to persuade the public that trains are capable of doing so. In the first quarter of 2010, ATA spent $361,513 lobbying the federal government, while the Association of American Railroads spent $1.7 million.

Trucking companies are among the railroads’ best customers, using them to move freight whenever the distance of haul and nature of the cargo make sense for the shipper and the consumer. Intermodal cooperation between trucking companies and railroads is a great advance in transportation, but these opportunities are extremely limited and comprise just a small fraction of the freight market, in part because railroads only reach 20% of our nation’s communities. When rail infrastructure does exist in a community, a truck is still needed to move goods the final miles from rail yard to grocery store.

Additionally, because of the nature of freight hauled, economists expect that by 2021, trucks will haul almost 71% of freight tonnage, while railroads will carry less than 15% of all freight. Railroads are ideal for moving heavy, bulk commodities and the overwhelming majority of shipments by rail are raw materials like stone, coal and grain that are not time-sensitive. Trucks excel at moving low-density, time-sensitive goods.

Even if a substantial amount of freight could be shifted from highway to rail, the result would be more congestion near urban areas, not less, because an intermodal ramp concentrates truck traffic for pickup and drop-off in one location. Despite the DOT’s focus on ridding the highways of trucks, any shift to alternate modes like ship or train would still require trucks to supply freight movement to the waterways or rail lines, then again to the final destination.

The trucking industry agrees with the administration that reducing traffic congestion and investing in transportation infrastructure is a vital measure to ensure the United States’ economic recovery and trade viability. However, I implore decision-makers to examine market conditions and consider policies that will yield the greatest return on investment. The repair and expansion of our National Highway System will do exactly that, benefiting shippers and consumers alike.

Bill Graves, the former governor of Kansas, is president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the leading industry trade and safety advocacy organization in the United States. Through a federation of 50 affiliated state trucking associations, conferences and other trucking-related organizations, ATA represents the interests of nearly 37,000 motor carriers and suppliers before the federal and state governments.