Twin Cities congestion hits truckers, tooby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
Truck traffic is increasing. It's not your imagination. The reason is the economy is growing and trucks carry most of the goods. That adds to the congestion. Minnesota lawmakers are floating various proposals to raise more money for transportation infrastructure. A growing number of people view more money as a much needed ingredient for expanding the country's freight hauling system.
St. Paul, Minn. — Every weekday driver John Simon racks up 200 miles as he delivers and picks up goods in southern Minnesota towns and cities. Simon says Twin Cities roadway congestion is worse than when he started driving fresh out of high school 28 years ago.
But with an air of patience essential for someone who guides 80,000 pounds of vehicle and goods through bumper to bumper traffic he says it's not too bad.
"As far as metropolitan areas go I don't think we have quite the problem as other places in the country. I mean, our rush hours are two hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon," he says.
Other's quibble with that assessment. Bill Gardner, the Minnesota Department of Transportation's director of freight planning and development says congestion is the number one concern he hears from freight haulers.
"They can't make their deliveries into the metro area, they can't get their trucks through the metro area," he says.
One obvious solution to freight congestion is to allow longer trucks, and that happens in some states including Minnesota which allows pups, driver jargon for a tractor pulling two trailers.
Some states, mostly western, allow triples, a tractor pulling three trailers, and they've built roadways to accommodate them. State officials say federal rules prohibit triples in Minnesota, and there's little likelihood that will change.
If our congested metropolitan roadways can't handle the growing amount of freight traffic what about railroads? Trains carry about a third of the country's freight. They roll past Clark Bremer's business in northeast Minneapolis all day long.
Bremer owns Northern Lights Timber Framing. He and his coworkers use chain saws and chisels to carve and shape the wood. Bremer says the massive 28-foot long timbers barely fit on the trucks that haul them from the west coast, the east coast and northern Minnesota. They'd fit nicely on rail cars.
But no trains stop on the two sets of tracks steps away from his building.
"They go right past the outside of our shop but we just don't have access to it because the spurs are gone," Bremer says.
One hundred years ago freight carried on trains was the rule. Trucking surged ahead with the building of the country's extensive road system and availability of cheap fuel. These days rail companies prefer hauling bulk commodities like coal and grain long distances. They're turning a profit and once again investing in rail infrastructure to try keep up with the freight volume.
But experts lament the bottlenecks.
MNDOT's Bill Gardner points to Chicago where the country's eastern railroads meet the country's western railroads. Sort of.
"Right now when an eastern railroad meets a western railroad a lot of that freight actually has to be trucked across town from one railroad to another. It's crazy," he says.
Part of the solution to the freight moving crunch is fixing congestion, according Stephen Burks.
Burks is an economics professor and transportation researcher at the University of Minnesota-Morris and in another life he was a truck driver.
Burks says, think of moving freight and people as one big system. That means spending on all components to keep goods and people moving.
"That means building more roads and more lanes, also potentially building more light rail and more high speed bus lanes and things like that, potentially building truck only lanes and potentially doing some varieties of congestion pricing that are all on the list of options," he says. "I think we're going to do some mixture, not just one or the other."
U.S. freight costs are among the lowest in the industrialized world, according to Burk. That seems to leave room for higher charges that will help finance infrastructure, and there's growing support even among truckers for increasing state and federal fuel taxes.
But road and bridge building costs are spiraling upwards several times faster than the rate of inflation. Delay in addressing how to handle the burgeoning amount of freight in this country drives the cost of the solution much higher.
- Morning Edition, 03/19/2007, 6:50 a.m.