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January 25, 2016 4:00 AM, EST

Opinion: Find Ways to Make Better Use of US Highways

This Opinion piece appears in the Jan. 25 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

By Dave Beaudry

Director of Logistics Engineering and Consulting

NationaLease

Although Congress finally passed a five-year, $305 billion highway bill, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, and President Obama signed it Dec. 4, we should not overlook the ancillary issues that distinguish between the needs of the motoring public and the transportation industry.

The obvious issues covered by the FAST Act are fixing existing roads and bridges, adding new highways and identifying the requisite funding. However, when new highways are being built, the motoring public’s agenda seems to take precedence over transportation industry issues. For example, the New Jersey Turnpike has lanes specifically devoted to car traffic as well as a section for both trucks and cars. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have roads, or portions of roads, solely dedicated to truck traffic? We’ve all seen the choke points around major cities where trucks end up idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic. These types of delays pollute the environment and put the brakes on the efficient delivery of goods and services.

Bypasses around cities were designed to divert traffic from major metropolitan areas in an attempt to reduce congestion. Unfortunately, many of those beltways are now as clogged as the highways that cut straight through the cities themselves.

Why not expand on the “truck-lane-only” concept to figure out how to get heavy truck traffic around and through these cities more efficiently? Having a conga line of Class 8 tractors tied up in rush-hour traffic is probably the most expensive — and least efficient — outcome possible for the trucking industry. Additionally, the mingling of cars and trucks on the same roads imposes certain safety risks.

I am guessing that if a fleet operator had the option to pay a fee or toll for use of a road that kept his cargo moving around a traffic choke point, he’d be more than willing to pay the price. I think that would be especially true if that road was designated for truck use only. No cars allowed! The reality is that in most accidents involving cars and heavy trucks, it is the driver of the car who is at fault. Separating cars and trucks could have a significant effect on accident rates. Industry experts estimate that the level of interstate congestion recorded in 2013 incurred associated costs of $9.2 billion. And it’s only getting worse.

For trucking companies, efficient routing would boost productivity. Drivers’ hours of service would be spent actually driving rather than sitting in traffic and would ensure that delivery schedules could be met or exceeded.

Unfortunately, common-sense ideas often don’t come cheaply. In an urban area, it can cost between $4 million and $6 million per mile to build a four-lane highway and about $4 million per mile to expand an existing interstate highway, whether it’s designed for trucks or cars. Despite the obstacles, now is the time to accelerate the dialogue about how we can better utilize existing highways. It is our obligation to offer suggestions for achieving that goal.

Reversible lanes come to mind. Interstate 595 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is a good example. Depending on the time of day, lanes are open for inbound traffic only and, depending on traffic flow, can be switched to accommodate outbound traffic only. The goal of these reversible lanes is to ease congestion by alternating available lane capacity.

Why not designate these same lanes as truck-only lanes during certain hours of the day or under certain traffic conditions? While reversible lanes are typically designed to flow in certain directions at certain times, it is not too far-fetched to assume that, as we move to more vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, the lane reversals could happen dynamically as the need arises. Again, I suspect fleet owners would be willing to pay to use those roads knowing the cost would be offset by savings in fuel expenses and drive time.

Fleets are already paying a high price for inefficiencies when their trucks are stuck in traffic, burning up fuel and eating into hours of service. I have no doubt they would welcome a solution that promised to eliminate those pain points and improve their operating efficiency.

Keep in mind that fleets are not the only ones that would benefit from changes in the way we configure and operate our highways. Car drivers would likely be happier not to have to share the road with big trucks. If all the truck traffic were diverted, traffic would be less dense and motorists would be able to zip along at posted speeds.

The idea of highways dedicated exclusively to truck traffic or lanes assigned for truck traffic during specific hours or traffic conditions may seem somewhat radical (especially to the motoring public). Yet, discussion around the highway bill affords an opportunity for our nation’s leaders to plan for the future, in which today’s seemingly far-fetched ideas may become solutions.

NationaLease is one of the largest full-service truck leasing organizations in North America, and is comprised of more than 165 independent businesses.