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Moving Freight Across America

This article marks the inauguration of a new transportation column focused on trucking industry trends in the United States that influence business across North America

by Bill Graves

In little more than a decade, the demand for truck services will increase by more than 30 percent, which means the trucking industry will transport nearly 3.3 billion more tons of freight than it carries today. To accommodate this higher demand, the number of Class 8 trucks will increase by 32 percent, putting almost 1 million more trucks on the road, or 75,000 new trucks each year. To put this in perspective, that's nearly 1 billion tons greater than the total volume of freight railroads will carry 10 years from now.

But several forces continue to put pressure on trucking's ability to efficiently move freight and keep America's economy rolling. Today, growing congestion and the potential proliferation of tolls threaten our ability to move freight productively, efficiently and safely.

Regrettably, some state and federal decision-makers lack sufficient appreciation for how critical trucking and the highway system are to the health and well-being of America's national economy.

Stakeholders are at a crossroads regarding how to fund the future system. Since its inception, the interstate has been paid for by fuel taxes. Trucking pays nearly $15 billion, or 43 percent, in highway user fee revenues annually toward the $35 billion Federal Highway Trust Fund. Congress recently authorized $286 billion in spending on surface transportation programs through 2009. The current fuel tax system worked effectively for many years. Now, however, questions have been raised over whether the fuel tax system can remain an effective and viable means of funding highway infrastructure in the future.

Since 1980, the United States' economy, and travel on the nation's highways, has nearly doubled. The nation's population has risen 27 percent, truck registrations have increased by 61 percent, truck vehicle-miles traveled have risen by 102 percent and passenger vehicle-miles traveled have gone up by 87 percent. Yet the highway system has only been expanded by about 3 percent over the same period.

Such staggering growth has resulted in growing stress on highway capacity and unprecedented levels of congestion across the United States. In many parts of the country, highways that once could be counted on to carry people and goods quickly and efficiently are choked with traffic - burning time and energy.

At the same time, tolls are costing our industry billions each year. States continue to impose ever-higher tolls, looking to the trucking industry to pay the bills. This inefficient and inequitable method of funding double taxes motor carriers and diverts a substantial volume of traffic to other roads.

Few feel the effects of tolls and congestion more directly than trucking. And over the next quarter century, these problems will only grow worse. Limited road capacity expansions that have been made over the past two decades have focused primarily on accommodating the development of new residential subdivisions, and not on accommodating the efficient movement of traffic along primary highways such as interstates.

Increased congestion hits trucking at a time when the economy is relying on trucks to haul more goods and the number of drivers is not increasing at the same rate as driver demand. Trucking is projected to haul 14 billion tons of freight by 2016, compared with 10.7 billion tons in 2005. Yet most state transportation plans do not anticipate breaking with the current trend of limiting highway capacity expansion, which has caused the current congestion problems.

If the industry doesn't become more productive, if we can't substantially reduce our empty miles or wait times at loading docks, and if we don't have more rational size-and-weight regulations, the number of trucks on the road and the number of miles trucks drive will double in the next two decades. Congestion that we experience today will pale in comparison to what we will have 25 years from now.

America's highway system has grown to become our most important nationwide infrastructure enterprise. For that to continue, public and private sector stakeholders must restore and maintain a well-developed national highway system. Improved highway infrastructure through financing techniques that do not disadvantage truckers and consumers will allow trucking to continue to move ever-increasing amounts of freight more efficiently, profitably, safely and on time.

There is a solution. Congress can act to ensure that federal revenues generated from fees imposed on highway users are invested more effectively. Approximately one-quarter of federal highway user revenue is diverted to non-highway projects, such as bicycle paths, museum restoration and other purposes. It is clear that many of these projects have limited impact on the safety or efficiency of the transportation system, and resources could be more effectively invested in critical, yet neglected highway projects.

The trucking industry believes the federal government must take a lead role in identifying systemic problems and working with individual states to fix them. Limited dollars currently are spread way too thin on projects that may not be critical.

Fixing our highways, easing congestion and enabling the trucking industry to move freight more efficiently is an important project. The trucking industry is ready to stand with our road-building partners and our government to move the American economy forward on a well-built highway system.