As the Washington political class argues over who’s responsible for soaring gas prices, hapless commuters remain camped on the Beltway guzzling countless gallons and dreaming of the day when Congress addresses our nagging congestion problem.
The average Washington-area commuter spends approximately 226 hours per year driving to and from work. Unfortunately, that’s not the worst part of it: The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that the freight traffic will double by 2020. While this is strong sign of our growing economy, it is also a huge strain on our nation’s highways. More freight usually means more trucks on the road. And since highway capacity is projected to increase by only 10 percent during this time, we’re looking at even more congestion.
If traffic continues to increase at this pace, the infamous traffic that has plagued Los Angeles for years will be visited upon by drivers in eleven additional urban areas. According to new estimates, in the next twenty years, congestion in Atlanta, Minneapolis and nine other urban areas will be worse than present-day Los Angeles. Located in the bustling Northeast Corridor, Washington can expect traffic to get much worse.
I can’t promise a silver bullet for this looming problem, but I can say that there are strategies for easing the freight surge burden on area commuters. Every year for the past six, I have reviewed the impact of increased fright traffic on America’s most congested corridors and examined how shifting freight from trucks on the highway to trains could benefit commuters and their communities.
Freight trains are a vital link in our nation’s economic system. Today, one of the fastest growing segments of freight transport is intermodal shipping, which involves utilizing trucks for short distance hauling and transferring trailers and containers to trains for longer distances. One intermodal freight train can take nearly 300 trucks off the road.
By forging an even stronger link between the trucking and freight rail industries, we can capitalize on the very real economic and environmental benefits of freight rail. The EPA estimates that for every ton mile, a typical truck shipment emits roughly three times more nitrogen oxide and particulates than a freight train. And trains are remarkably fuel efficient — on just one gallon of fuel, one train can move one ton of freight 423 miles — that is farther than the distance between Washington and Detroit.
In the Beltway region, shifting 25 percent of the freight surge from trucks to trains by 2025 would mean 40 fewer hours in commuting time every year compared to what is likely to occur otherwise. That same shift also would decrease air pollutant emissions in the area by as much as 23,000 tons.
Shifting freight traffic from trucks to rail also would have a positive impact on commuters’ pocketbooks. For example, by 2025, commuters in the area could each save 77 gallons of fuel annually with a 25 percent shift. With average fuel prices today at more than $3 per gallon, the savings would be significant — an average of $834 in congestion costs per Washington metro commuter every year.
As I said, there is no silver bullet to this problem. However, this being Washington, there is a place for Congress in the picture. In order to haul more goods, the freight rails require more capacity. Members of Congress from both parties have introduced the Freight Rail Infrastructure Capacity Expansion Act in hopes of bolstering needed infrastructure investment so the freight railroads can handle many more intermodal shipments and get more trucks off I-95. With such supporters as Sens. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, and Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, it is clear that the battle to fight highway congestion transcends party lines.
The legislation would provide transportation companies, including railroads, trucking companies and shipping lines, with a 25 percent tax credit to increase rail capacity. It would apply to new track, intermodal facilities and state-of-the-art locomotives — all essential to positioning the rail industry to handle a larger market share of freight transport while continuing to provide on-time, quality service to shippers.
Freight rail is but one solution to help America better handle the surge in freight volume. However, in order to reap the benefits of freight rail for America’s commuters, it is time to get moving. Congress has broken through the gridlock to introduce this legislation. Now is the time to green light its passage.
Wendell Cox is president and CEO of Demographia.