By Richard L. Beadles

June 30, 2018

 

"What could be done, if there were the political will to do it, is to  stop subsidizing the truck movement option ... which might tip the economic balance slightly in the direction of conventional rail IM. This might best be accomplished by imposing a "weight-distance" tax on all trucks and autos on I-81, and ultimately on all Virginia highways."


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In the span of about sixty years (since about 1946) the standard unit of domestic surface cargo transport has almost completely changed from the traditional railroad boxcar to 18- Wheel highway truck rigs. Remember when a key indicator of U.S. economic activity, reported on a weekly basis, was rail carloads? No more; rail carloads are no longer included in national economic news briefs.

 

Some say that there are more than 470,000--t:ruck fleet operators in the U..S. - probably an understated number. The number of Class ONE railroads (determined by revenues) has declined, as result of mergers and abandonm nts over the same period, from more than one hundred (100+) to only seven (7). There are, however, an additional hundred or more significant regional and short-line railroads, but the Class ONE systems originate and handle most rail freight traffic today. While truck/rail lntermodal ("IM") has grown to the point that it now represents a major share of total rail traffic, it is nevertheless inconsequential - relatively speaking -- when compared with the volume of large, long-haul (as opposed to local delivery) trucks on our highways.

 

Railroads have withdrawn from many competitive transportation markets, including what used to be called "merchandise" -- that is higher value manufactured consumer goods requiring speedy movement -- to the extent that the traditional boxcar fleet is today less than 10% of what it was in 1980, the landmark date of federal rail deregulation.  Very little rail traffic - much of which migrated offshore - was converted to domestic truck/rail intermodal.

 

The exception is foreign-manufactured products - the wholesale ,trade --now handled in ocean- shipped marine containers imported through a dozen major North American ports. At some of those ports of entry, the rail share of inland transportation reaches 30% or more container units. But the vast majority of imported containerized cargo moves via truck to near-by distribution centers, where much of it is unloaded, redirected, reloaded and shipped out in 18- Wheelers to final retail destination points, mostly within a radius of several hundred miles.

Image: Containerized cargo moving by truck

The result is that we are inundated with trucks, on highways, in every direction, twenty­ four hours per day, seven-days per week. This situation, although objectionable to many, currently seems inescapable.  There appears to be no satisfactory alternative in the foreseeable future. This pattern of cargo movement and distribution is essential to maintenance of our economic wellbeing and personal lifestyles. Over the long run, however, what has been briefly described above is worthy of further study to see if there are acceptable ways to mitigate the adverse consequences of today's system of domestic surface transport.

 

We certainly can't say that this system is unsustainable, but with robust future growth trends predicted in Virginia --including the ever-increasing volume of cargo coming through Hampton Roads -- it deserves our attention. Adverse impact includes highway construction and maintenance, environmental degradation, safety and quality of life for private citizens who are forced to compete with trucks pulling trailers, and sometime multiple units, and containers.

 

The Hampton Roads Region

According to the Virginia Port Authority ("VPA'') website, our Virginia Port ("the Port") handled 1,612,760 containers last year (2017). That means individual marine containers, or "boxes", not the artificial measure of TEUs, which is a larger number not germane to our discussion here. At the same time, the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization ("HRTPO") estimates that about 18,000 trucks (not clear how defined) enter or exit the Hampton Roads region daily, approximately 6,570,000 annually. Note the comparison, which is interesting because there is the perception in some circles that the Port itself is the primary generator of trucks on regional roads (and it may be, but let's look further).

 

Sources of Truck Traffic in Hampton Roads Region    

 

Annual Truck Count

Percent of total.

Avg. Per Day

H.R. Region

6,570,000

100%

18,000

Port

1,612,760

   24%

  4,419

37% of Port via Rail

   596,721

     9%

  1,635

63% of Port via Highway*

1,016,039

   15%

  2,784

* barge not considered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: Traffic Congestion in Hampton Roads

 

So what is going on here; who is generating all that "non-Port" truck traffic? The answer may be, in part, Port customers who generate truck traffic after the marine container arrives at their distribution center.   And then there are the 1.7 million Hampton Roads region residents; no small constituency to sustain and accommodate. VPA has a map of Virginia showing the location of such distribution centers, which may now total 75 to 80 in Virginia, of which it appears about 37 are located in Eastern and Southeastern Virginia, and about the same number in the 1-81 and U.S. Route 29 corridors, and a few elsewhere. Naturally, there is a concentration of Port-related distribution centers in the Hampton Roads region and in close proximity thereto. The names would generally be familiar to the average citizen, including Walmart; Dollar Tree, Target, QVC Network, Cost-Plus World Market, Cannon Virginia, International Paper, Kraft/Planters Peanuts, and m· any more. It is our assumption that such centers, throughout the State, generate and receive 18- Wheeler traffic that is both directly and indirectly related to the Port. 

 

Among the 18-Wheeler gateways to and from Hampton Roads are, not surprisingly, 1-64 in Janes Center County, U.S. 460 in Isle of Wight County, U.S. 58 in Franklin, U.S. 17 in Gloucester, and U.S. 13 via the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. There are other such gateway possibilities as well, but those cited above appear to be the most heavily used by large trucks.

 

If we correctly interpret HRTPO study results, they estimate that of the 18,000 Hampton Roads truck arrivals and departures daily, as many as 6,000 might use 1-64, 4,300 U.S. 58, 2,400 U.S. 460, and the remaining 5,300 spread over all otber route and gateway possibilities. It is worth noting once again that the 2017 daily average of direct truck arrivals and departures at the VPA ports is only 2,784 out of the 18,000 total attributed to Hampton Roads.

 

Some transportation experts appear to dismiss the 18,000 number as of little consequence when compared with total vehicle trips daily in the region; however, it seems that every new or expanded road project is largely justified based on Port truck traffic growth.

Image: Traffic in Hampton Roads

 

In any event, there is certainly a large - and growing - number of truck moves in and out of Hampton Roads, generated by both international and regional commerce. Other than rail and barge service as a substitute for highway movement, what if anything can be done to take the "head" off of a future wave of 18-Wheeler demands on road capacity?

 

The 1-81 Corridor

The writer has only scanned the 2017 VDOT traffic counts and 18-Wheeler truck volume percentages for the 325-mile 1-81 corridor extending from a point just north of Winchester southward to a point around Bristol. It appears that big truck percentages may range from 15% to 20% of total bidirectional vehicle counts of 60,000 to 100,000 or more. Conservatively, then 18 Wheelers could total 10,000 to 15,000 (or more) per day, depending upon the observation point location. VDOT's system monitors axles and trailers at a large number of check points, by direction. It is impossible to say just how many 18-Wheelers travel the entire 325-mile route.

 

Many trucks pulling maritime containers are traveling portions of 1-81 as they make trips to, from and between origin and destination, e.g. Staunton -- Lexington enroute to and from Covington and the Port. Moreover the 1- 77 overlap (use of 1-81) for a short distance in Southwest Virginia significantly inflates the 1-81truck traffic counts. At an assumed 10,000 trucks per 24-hour day, 365 days per annum, the overall 1-81 big truck volume is possibly as much as 3,650,000 per year, about twice the VPA total, but less than half of HRTPO's greater Hampton Roads total truck arrival and departure estimate.

Image:  I-81 in Virginia

 

1-81 is the poster-child of 18-Wheeler infestation in Virginia because of the sheer volume, but even more so because of the concentration of so many trucks on one Interstate in a constricted corridor constructed in an environmentally sensitive Valley. Recall that HRPTO estimated 6,000 truck per day on 1-64 on the Virginia Peninsula, but little complaint (specifically about trucks) is heard from motorists and adjacentl-1-64 Corridor landowners. Why is this?

 

 

SB-971, Current VA General Assembly Legislation Commissioning the most recent 1-81 Corridor Study

We have lost track of the Legislative mandates to the Virginia Department of Transportation ("VDOT") concerning 1-81.  The most _recent session was no exception.  After hearing from constituents in the Valley of Vir inia, the General Assembly once again tossed the ball to VDOT, in effect saying "do something" about the dangerous and frustrating condition of 1-81 which seems to be particularly prone to spectacular accidents, causing epic tie-ups, and all too often loss of life and limb. David Foster, representing Salem-based Rail Solution wrote, in his recent submission to VDOT, that the 1-81 corridor problem is, and always has been, one of trucks and cargo, not people. Foster argues that without trucks, 1-81 would not be a problem. Others have said that nothing done by VDOT to date (such as truck climbing lanes, etc.) has yet solved the problem. In addition, there are local concerns along the 325-mile corridor about 1-81 widening plans that infringe upon landowners and communities.

 

Prior 1-81 corridor solution inquiries have looked at parallel rail as a reliever. Indeed, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation ("DRPT") has funded substantially more than $100 million in private railroad (Norfolk Southern) infrastructure improvements on, in and along NS' Crescent Corridor in an effort to divert additional trucks from highway to rail. However, the result has been disappointing. Some rail experts frinkly acknowledge that traditional truck-rail lntermodal ("IM1         service, as it is presently designed and operated, has very limited potential to capture a significant share of highway freight - at least in the 1-81 corridor. There are many reasons for this, including outdated civil engineering design aspects of the existing Shenandoah Valley rail corridor(s), lack of capacity necessary to respond effectively, and rail industry aversion to operating short, frequent, and much faster trains. 

Steel Interstate concept for Shenandoah Valley

Foster's Rail Solution organization (which includes some local and regional Valley interests, but not rail industry representation) advocates, as we understand it, reconstruction of the existing rail corridor to transform it into the rail equivalent of an Interstate Highway.

Image: Steel Interstate Concept for Shenandoah Valley

Even if that were done - presumably with many millions of public dollars - there remains a question of who would market and operate what would resemble, as envisioned by Foster, et. al., a new truck ferry-t ype of service from a point north of Virginia to another point in Tennessee, or beyond. NS has shown no interest While conceptually feasible, the Rail Solution solution seems beyond our reach, for political and business reasons, at the present time.

 

What could be done, if there were the political will to do it, is to  stop subsidizing the truck movement option -- a well-documented fact -- which might tip the economic balance slightly in the direction of conventional rail IM. This might best be accomplished by imposing a "weight-distance" tax on all trucks and autos on 81, and ultimately on all Virginia highways.

 

Ultimately, if rail is to accommodate a meaningful number of trucks in multiple Virginia corridors, more drastic and forceful intervention will be required by federal and state legislative policy makers. Something akin to Rail Solution's vision would be needed, but even beyond building 21st century rail corridor infrastructure, a reorientation of rail industry thinking would be necessary, with the support of - rather than opposition - from capital markets. Unfortunately, the odds of this happening are not good. Nevertheless, the 18-Wheeler pandemic may yet grow to the point where r dical solutions become necessary.

 

How is it that VPA can claim 37% rail market share today?

The international traffic currently moving to and from Hampton Roads by rail is, for the most part, destined to and from the Midwest, a distance (800+/- miles) that begins to favor rail over highway for a certain segment of domestic cargo movement. There are several exceptions to the foregoing assertion, one being VPA's inland port at Front Royal, VA. Another important consideration is the most such cargo is controlled by the steamship lines which operate into and out of Hampton Roads. That greatly simplifies the business relationship(s), as opposed to having to corral hundreds of different shippers using the 1-81 corridor. Finally, the ocean shipping industry is accustomed to measuring transit time in days rather than hours. Psychologically, that may be important.

 

Conclusions

Trucks deliver the goods. They are irreplaceable. Increasingly, truck fleet operators and drivers are responsible, law-abiding business and professional people. Implementation of electronic monitoring of truck operation represents a big step forward in improving safety. Yet, for those of us who fear being caught up in a truck convoy --- particularly in heavy rain, ice or snow - the ever increasing number of big trucks on our highways is a problem. It also presents a public funding and construction challenge of enormous proportions.

 

One of the great challenges is to accurately classify and count actual truck moves. Some cite a variety of  sources which claim that trucks (again, definitions are important) only represent from four to six percent of all U.S. highway vehicles. There are certainly st ret ches of road where those figures would be sufficient, but not 1-81, nor some of the urban corridors in Hampton Roads, where --- depending upon time of day, day of week, etc. - 18-Wheelders might, at times, range up to a quarter of passing vehicle moves. Moreover, each 18-Wheeler probably requires four times the highway lane capacity that a single aut omo· bile needs.  In addition, the cost of design, construction, maintenance and operation (think truck rest stops) of highways, particularly the Interstates, is literally defined and quantified by the demands of 40,000 pound, and up, trucks. Every aspect of highway design, maintenance and cost of operation would be dramatically different were we dealing only with autos and SUVs.

 

Thoughtful observers and some experts have said to this writer, "this is the new normal, it is good, and necessary to accommodate the Amazon model of e-commerce. Enjoy the luxury of shopping from home - which by the way saves auto trips to the mall". True enough, but it is not Amazon that is living with the transportation consequences, or maybe they will. Recent media news reveals that Amazon is seeking to encourage and undoubtedly sponsor hundreds, maybe thousands, of independent contractors, or-the equivalent, to bring FedEx and UPS to the  table when pricing and service is up for negotiat ion,. Who knows?

 

Others foresee driverless trucks operating platoon--style on our Interstates and other main highways. Will such "trains" of trucks be comingled with autonomous autos? Or will it become necessary to separate 18-Wheelers and automobiles? If we are going to have to construct, at public expense, separate truck corridors, then David Foster's "superhighway for trains" would deserve much more intense consideration.

 

At this early stage of artificial intelligence ("Al") application to highway transportation, it is not clear - and no one can tell for sure - whether a transition to widespread use of autonomous vehicles will make more capacity available on existing roadways or increase demand for highway capacity, and thus create the need for even more highway infrastructure. Historically, the more lane capacity the public has built, the more users showed up, e.g. "induced demand".

 

There is no question but that automation is going to play an important role in our transportation future. Hopefully, it will not be restricted to highway vehicles. Rethinking the rail option, with electrification on high density routes, driverless locomotives, lighter cargo­ carrying rail cars, more frequent "trains" between dedicated quick load/unload lntermodal terminals, two-to-three-hundred miles apart, could transform the rail option such that it might produce a service comparable to highway transport of freight. In the same way that the public sector joins with the private to deliver most U.S. surface transportation today via highway, the nearly identical model could be used for rail lntermodal. Why has this not happened already on a larger scale? Rails and Wall Street seem to be content with declining market share, and public policy makers must be content to let sleeping dogs lie.

 

Then there is aviation and water transport. International shipping containers designed and constructed of fiberglass might someday be delivered by air lift directly from ship to final destination. Even more traditional coastwise water transport of cargo begs for revival. VPA took such a first step with the "1-64 barge service" on the James River, which from all accounts has met with enough shipper acceptance to warrant construction of another barge, looking ahead to fi ve-day-per week service between the VPA ports in Hampton Roads and the Richmond Marine Terminal (formerly Deepwater Terminal). What about the Rappahannock between Hampton Roads and Fredericksburg, as well as the Potomac? We understand that there is already a barge service between Hampton Roads and Baltimore. Generations subsequent to those coming of age in the 1930s generally have no idea how much domestic cargo moved coastwise between Savannah, Charleston and Norfolk, on the one hand, and North Atlantic U.S. ports on the other. With public policy encouragement, it could happen again sparing 1-95 part of its burden of 18-Wheelers.

 

Meanwhile, orders for new trucks (18-Wheel tractors and trailers) are said (WSJ) to be coming in to truck manufacturers at a rate not seen in nearly two decades. Neither rail nor marine transportation equipment orders come close to that pace.  A clear picture of our future is emerging.

 

The search for solutions must be intensified before the 18-Wheeler Pandemic gets completely out of hand. If there are folks out there with answers, please step forward.

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