Mobility and the needs of freight

A discussion of the potential for freight-specific road infrastructure.

This website has long focused on transportation systems designed to move people: buses, trains, bicycles, sidewalks, and even the private automobile (although the latter is frequently held in low esteem ’round these parts). But transportation systems designed to move freight are often not given as much consideration by those of us in transit advocacy. Systems for freight movement are far less visible to the public, and are beyond the scope of agencies such as TriMet. (Many transit advocates also have similar objections to truck traffic as they do to automobile traffic). But efficient freight movement is equally important to the economy as movement of people, and ought to IMHO be a greater concern, particularly since the needs of freight is commonly sought as justification for building additional highway capacity, which is then consumed by single-occupant vehicles.

Log rapid transit
We’ll start today’s rant with a bit of history.

Many longtime Oregonians are familiar with the so-called “Molalla Forest Road”. It was a two lane highway which ran from a log dump along the Willamette River west of Canby, up into Molalla and the lumber camps in the Cascade foothills. It mostly ran parallel to the Oregon Pacific (“Samtrak”) rail line which ran to Molalla (and nowadays end in the town of Liberal, just north of Molalla). The right-of-way still mostly exists, and is used as a trail, though the pavement is long gone for much of the route. The most conspicuous remnant of the Molalla Forest Road is the big green viaduct crossing over Highway 99E as you enter Canby from the north, right above the wye where the OP joins with the UPRR mainline. (Here’s a partial map of the route).

The MFR was a private road, closed to the public (although an exception apparently existed for those using it to look at property, a pretext my parents occasionally used to go exploring). One of its more interesting features, though, was signal priority for trucks at all grade crossings of regular streets–including at intersections with OR213 and OR211 near Molalla. Traffic on these two state highways was stopped by a traffic light whenever a log truck came barreling by. It was like Bus Rapid Transit–for timber. Why some may grouse at the inequity of giving commercial traffic priority over ordinary motorists, in some ways, it makes sense–log trucks (and other large vehicles) take a lot energy to accelerate from s stop, and keeping them moving is beneficial. (And this was the 1970s, after all–a time where energy shortages weren’t uncommon). The route, which was privately owned, may have also been a way for timber companies to avoid paying weight-mile tax and/or having to comply with ODOT motor carrier regulations.

According to reports, there were similar “forest roads” elsewhere in the Metro area, including in SW Washington, though I’ve no personal knowledge of any of these. The MFR closed sometime in the early 1980s, as hard times hit the timber industry in Oregon.

The trouble with truck routes

Today, the concept of a road dedicated for trucking seems almost unheard of. There are many streets and roads designated as “truck routes”, but the vast majority of these are of an entirely different character. Like the pullout bus stop (which “allows” a bus stopped to pick up passengers to not block traffic–cui bono?), most truck routes aren’t there for the benefit of trucks, but for the benefit of cars and local residents who seek to avoid truck traffic. Truck routes generally don’t designate exclusive routes for trucks, but the routes where trucking isn’t forbidden. In many cases, the prohibition is more direct–signs saying “no trucks” (or “no through trucks” or “deliveries only”) identify streets where trucks are not to go, or are only permitted if making a local stop.

While some truck routes exist for safety reasons (keeping large trucks off of streets with sharp curves, steep grades, or narrow lanes), most exist to keep through trucks from offending the neighbors or interfering with auto traffic. Motorists don’t like mingling with Macks, and many residents don’t enjoy the sound of air horns, air breaks, and fifteen speed transmissions. Or the smell of diesel fumes, for that matter–a complaint frequently made about busses as well. (And diesel fumes are known to have harmful health effects, so this isn’t a trivial concern–grist for the bus/rail mill).

Trucking is treated as second-class in many other places, as well. On freeways wider than two lanes in each direction, trucks are generally barred from all but the outermost two lanes. In some cities, such as Washington DC, one finds numerous freeways labeled “parkways” on which truck traffic is banned altogether.

That said, there are good reasons to segregate trucking from other types of traffic (and from residential land uses). Trucks have fundamentally different acceleration and deceleration profiles than do automobiles, and the velocity of maximum fuel efficiency is far lower. Most modern cars are designed to have peak fuel economy at freeway speeds; and small trucks and SUVs are generally most fuel-efficient at 45MPH or so; large trucks experience peak fuel economy at around 35MPH. Trucks are generally driven by more-skilled operators, as commercial drivers’ licenses are generally needed to operate them (with some exceptions for self-serve moving vans, church busses, and the like). And the vast differences in mass mean that a collision between a car and a truck is usually deadly for the motorist and his/her passengers. Trucks also need wider lanes, higher clearances, and larger turning radii than cars do. My objection is not to separate facilities, it is to the second class treatment that freight often receives.

Honest. It’s for the trucks.

Civil libertarians have long observed, and lamented, a longstanding tendency for those supporting freedom-restricting legislation to defend it on the grounds of protecting children. “It’s for the kids” is frequently the mantra of numerous attempts to regulate public morality or increase police/surveillance powers, even when the proposed solution is targeted at primarily adult activities that have little to do with minors. A similar principle applies to highway-building, which is often justified on the grounds that it is beneficial to shipping.

When it comes time to plan new road projects, or multi-modal projects with a road component–the needs of shippers are given the utmost prominence in planning documents. Industry and trade groups are given a seat at the table. The deplorable impact of congestion on freight movements is deplored–as it causes deliveries to be late, deadlines to be missed, and real money to be wasted when trucks are stuck in traffic. And when highways, especially freeways, are involved, freight is proclaimed to be the very lifeblood of the economy–if we don’t build adequate freight infrastructure, civic leaders will loudly harrumph, industry may choose to locate somewhere else which does. (There’s a reason, by the way, that the so-called “race to the bottom” isn’t as fast as many would like to claim; many places at the bottom of the wage scale have environments unsuitable for business for other reasons, including undeveloped infrastructure).

Consider the CRC.

From the CRC purpose and need statement:

Impaired freight movement: I-5 is part of the National Truck Network, and the most important freight freeway on the West Coast linking international, national and regional markets in Canada, Mexico and the Pacific Rim with destinations throughout the western United States. In the center of the project area, I-5 intersects with the Columbia River’s deep water shipping and barging as well as two river-level, transcontinental rail lines. The I-5 crossing provides direct and important highway connection to the Port of Vancouver and Port of Portland facilities located on the Columbia River as well as the majority of the area’s freight consolidation facilities and distribution terminals. [Remember this sentence–ES] Freight volumes moved by truck to and from the area are projected to more than double over the next 25 years. Vehicle-hours of delay on truck routes in the Portland-Vancouver area are projected to increase by more than 90 percent over the next 20 years. Growing demand and congestion will result in increasing delay, costs and uncertainty for all businesses that rely on this corridor for freight movement.

All true. The CRC project area includes numerous freight nodes–the river terminals run by the Ports of Portland and Vancouver, numerous industrial areas on both sides of the river, Swan Island, access to PDX, and several rail terminas. The DEIS adds:

  • Supporting a sound regional economy and job growth.
  • Enhancing the I-5 corridor as a global trade gateway by addressing the need to move freight efficiently and reliably through the I-5 bridge influence area, and allowing for river navigational needs.

The freight working group spent a lot of time and money developing various technical reports, including an Existing Conditions Technical Report. The FWG produced a list of several recommended strategies to benefit freight movements, including:

  • Truck by-pass lanes
  • Access ramps for trucks
  • Enhanced design for truck mobility

So what happens? Were the FWG’s suggestions, particularly the first two, heeded? Don’t be silly. Instead, lots of general purpose lanes are built, justified by the needs of freight, but all of which are open to car traffic. Given the phenomenon of induced demand, wherein unused roadway capacity attracts additional users (and additional development), it likely won’t be long before trucks are stuck in the same traffic as before.

A few important things to note as to why this state of affairs–this bait-and-switch–is so unfortunate.

  • Demand for road use by commuters is far more elastic than is demand for the roads by freight, and also experiences high peak loads, during the morning and evening rush hours.
  • Commuters have other choices–carpooling, transit, active transportation, or even time-shifting their commutes to the off-peak hours. The main option available to freight is time-shifting, which many freight operators already do. An 18-wheeler is transit as far as freight is concerned; the amount and types of freight which can be suitably delivered by rail or water (both of which are cheaper and more efficient than trucking when they are suitable) is limited.
  • Facilities which must handle both trucks and cars have to be designed to accommodate both vehicles safely; meaning more stringent design standards (much of the expense of the CRC is addressing ramps which are too short or closely-spaced; a concern which is exacerbated by trucks. Separate facilities can be engineered according to the needs of the specific vehicle.

It is interesting, then, to note the inconsistency between how road agencies claim to treat trucking, and the inconsistency with how trucking is really treated. While it is the case that industry frequently gets a seat at the planning table, the politicians who ultimately make decisions are well aware of an important thing: Freight does not vote. Motorists do, and many motorists dislike the idea of dedicating road space to trucks, just as quite a few dislike bus lanes, bike lanes, and carpool lanes. And, in many cases, building segregated roadways makes projects more complex. But given the sheer importance of the I-5 corridor for freight movements, this is one place where it might make sense.

The resurrection of the truck-only lane?

In recent years, transportation authorities around the country have started to notice this phenomenon, and many proposals for so-called truck-only lanes have cropped up. A few such lanes already exist, mostly for safety reasons. But some projects have been suggested for building truck-only lanes for other reasons.

However, such proposals frequently face two obstacles. One, they are often judged on their ability to reduce auto congestion–unsurprisingly, this seldom works, due to induced demand. Second, they are often expected to pay for themselves, or are proposed as “toll lanes” which truckers must pay extra to use.

White Paper Seven

In 2009, ODOT commissioned a series of white papers investigating the prospect of tolling on Oregon roads, and one paper in the series–White Paper Seven–looked at the practicality of “truck only toll lanes”, which would be truck-only lanes that would be available to freight haulers for an additional fee. The paper’s conclusion was not promising–from a summary document:

TOT lanes appear to have little utility in Oregon because Oregon already allows longer-combination vehicles (three trailer-trucks) on highways, so the ability to improve productivity is limited. In addition, limited urban right of way, high construction costs, environmental concerns associated with expanding highway capacity and insufficient demand would decrease the utility of TOT lanes.

  • Long haul truckers with three trailers on their trucks already operate on Oregon highways and congestion is not high enough to warrant dedicated TOT lanes.
  • Portland is part of the most congested urban area in Oregon, and conditions will continue to get worse as the region continues to grow. If TOT lanes were only available in Portland, or another urban center, it is likely they would not be able to provide their intended value:
    • Truck demand remains level throughout the day but congestion typically occurs during peak hours. TOT lanes would only offer limited time saving during most days.
    • Long haul truckers would not find enough value to their overall trip to pay a toll for a short distance TOT lane
  • Improving truck access to ports is not a significant concern for the state.[emphasis added by me–does the CRC committee know about this?]
  • Many toll roads are built with a combination of toll funds and government funds. Government officials would need to determine if subsidizing a TOT lane was the best use of public funds. Other options might be able to meet similar objectives and be more cost-effective.

While the entire white paper is worthwhile reading, and includes lots of details of the problem, the conclusions strike me as suspect due to several flawed premises:

  • Any such project would have to be largely, or completely, financed by tolls. “Lexus lanes” are frequently a dubious proposition for auto traffic, and essentially the TOT facilities discussed are Lexus lanes for trucks.
  • Any such facility is presumed to be new, and thus requiring new construction.
  • The positively economic impacts of freer movement of freight, so proudly boasted of whenever a highway project is on the table, isn’t mentioned at all.

In fairness, the white paper was part of a study on tolling, so its focus was there as well; it would be an error to construe the paper’s conclusion as “truck only facilities are bad”. But if truck-only facilities need to be entirely user-funded (through tolls or other surcharges on freight haulers), a condition not imposed on highway projects, the outlook appears to be bleak.

If the region were really serious about freight

If we were really serious about freight movements, we would design our highway system to reflect this fact–and give freight needs higher priority over auto traffic, particularly the SOV variety. Right now, much of our policy effectively does the reverse. We, as a region, are serious about transit and about active transportation (the latter has the nice property of being inexpensive), but freight is still forced to sit in mixed traffic.

If we were serious about freight movements, we would abandon the attitude portrayed in White Paper Seven–that if shippers want improvements to the infrastructure, they have to pay for it. We happily subsidize motorists, and we happily subsidize transit.

And if were really serious about freight–in certain corridors we might created dedicated freight lanes or freight routes the same way Paris installed bus lanes, almost overnight–by taking away lanes from cars. Right now, on northbound I-5, there is a HOV lane, and one proposed for the southbound lanes in the future–why not a truck lane instead? We have a transit mall, why not create a “trucking malls” on certain key corridors like Yeon, Going, Columbia, or Marine? Why not queue jump lanes and/or signal priority for big rigs, like we have for TriMet all over town?

If we went whole-hog, we might even entertain the sort of freight-focused, big ticket public works project that today isn’t even on the radar, such as a bridge connecting Swan Island to the NW Industrial district, or a truck tunnel (parallel to the current rail tunnel) under N Portland, connecting Swan Island to Columbia Boulevard. Pie in the sky, I realize, but ideas don’t cost anything.

And if we were serious about promoting Portland as a place to do business, imagine the potential advantages that would come about if the city had a reputation for first-class freight infrastructure, and not just quality public transit. In fact, the quality alternative systems for the movement of people gives us a leg up, as we as a region can afford to dedicate more of our roads and highway capacity to the movement of goods, just as we dedicate more of our streets to pedestrians and bicycles.

The choice is ours.

10 responses to “Mobility and the needs of freight”

  1. Interesting thoughts Scotty. I realize it wasn’t included in your analysis, but we have subsidzed freight rail improvements. Some of the discretionary spending over the past 2 years at the Federal level has been used to increase capacity for the privatley held rail companies all across the region. Interesting how this type of spending happens, yet when it comes to highways, it is nixed.

    Furthermore, I have looked at the I-70 truck lane proposal. Since I live smack dab in the middle, my first instinct was to reject it based upon the urban destruction of the past associated with freeways. However, it looks like in most urban areas, it would be routed on beltways and such and any land that would be taken up, would be housing adjacent to freeways. Land that people probably would not mind vacating if I had to wager a guess.

    Similarly, I got word second hand, that a proposal to re-route frieght traffic around DT Indy via an old belt rail way, received some favorable consideration at the recent surface transportation bill hearings.

    It is interesting how our freight rail can get a lot of considering, and has received funding, yet the roads still dont command such subsidy

  2. We already do enough to subsidize trucking (low gas tax, highway funding from general taxes), especially when compared to rail freight. Perhaps this is an instance where we should take a page from the business bible and let the free market decide what’s best.

    In this future world of “fiscal responsibility” we should be focused on getting the best value for our transportation dollar. It might make more sense for businesses to adjust their schedules and ship during off-peak hours if they want to avoid congestion, rather than having the taxpayers pay for special infrastructure to support the current preferred mode of freight movement.

  3. From a policy perspective I’ve always believed that freight interests and alternative transportation advocates have a huge amount of common ground. Fundamentally the overabundance of single-occupancy vehicles is a challenge for both groups.

    But it’s been my experience that freight interests almost always advocate for general purpose lanes that serve the interests primarily of SOV users (trucks are about 7% of vehicles on our roads).

    It’s a paradox.

  4. I wouldn’t call it a paradox, Chris–for generations, trucking and transit have found themselves on the opposite sides of the ever-shifting ideological divide that dominates politics in the United States. It’s largely a private commercial endeavor, one that has long groused about regulation and taxes–fair or otherwise. This despite the fact that many other actors in “team red”, in particular the petroleum industry, have interests which are directly adverse to trucking (and I would say that Big Oil tends to win most of the time when the two factions do come into conflict).

    And many in “team blue”, particularly those with ties to the environmental movement, have long been openly hostile to the trucking industry–particularly the long-haul variety. The inter-modal fights between trucking and the freight railroads has long been viewed as a direct analog to the question of cars vs transit; and many on the left have long sided with the railroads (despite the fact that many of the Class 1 railroads are just as obnoxious and rent-seeking as any trucking company you can name, and historically have been far more so). Transit advocates have long framed their arguments (or allowed them to be framed in this fashion) as being against roads themselves, as opposed to being against SOVs and the capacity expansions that excessive SOV use requires. And upper-class greens in general have long had a habit of supporting bourgeois pseudo-environmentalist policies that simultaneously encourage more car use and make shipping more inefficient, by banishing trucks to the “bad” parts of town. (A good part of the social forces that inspired the growth of suburbia was the desire to make sure people didn’t have to live near industry–a legitimate concern, to be sure, but one which has had severe consequences).

    But you are right–there are many issues on which trucking (and freight in general) and transit have common ground; most importantly the issue of SOVs. Transit represents a significant solution to one of the most vexing problems facing freight movement; the more people who take the bus or ride a bike, the more space available on the roads for goods shipments that don’t have an alternative.

    But here’s the rub. Has anyone in the CRC process from the anti-freeway-expansion side, proposed truck-only lanes as an alternate? I’ve seen proposals for a truck supplemental bridge, essentially connecting the Port of Vancouver to Marine Drive/Columbia Boulevard, but few trucks travel from one port to the other. What would make more sense is dedicated truck capacity on I-5 itself. Much of the recent debate has been over the merits of an 8, 10, or 12 lane bridge, with all lanes general purpose. What of a 10-lane bridge, with 8 general purpose lanes and two truck lanes? If an additional $3 billion is going to be spent rebuilding I-5 between Columbia and SR500, why not include a truck-only facility as part of the design? This would address Portland’s concerns about the SOV firehose pointed at downtown by the addition of 4 lanes of general vehicle capacity, it would (or should) make freight interests happy, and ODOT still gets to pour a lot of concrete.

  5. After a little CRC-fragging at Metro a couple of weeks ago I chatted briefly with Bill Wyatt, who had just given an extensive presentation on the scope of the Port of Portland’s activities. Very interesting!

    He told me that if the Port were to develop West Hayden Island it would be strictly a ship-to-rail facility–no large increase in heavy trucking. This means that arterial connections to Hayden Island from Marine Drive and Vancouver would suffice–no freeway exits and entrances on the island would be necessary.

    Take that, ODOT!

    And “Cage Gauge” should be “Cape Gauge” on the other thread. I do not now and never have advocated streetcar service into cages of any kind.

  6. Thanks for this post. The Governors’ I-5 TF, the so called “Trade Partnership” had NO data a freight movement. Zero, Nada, None! Indeed the first project built after the TF’s final report in 2002 was the Delta/Lombard project which widened I-5 southbound, removing the add-lane off Columbia Blvd to I-5 south. Columbia is the busiest freight arterial in the region, but those trucks must now merge onto I-5 while Clark county commuters have three instead of two lanes.
    Note that “freight” is now used to justify capacity increases that primarily serve commuters alone in the cars…which happen to be the primary obstacle to moving that freight. The CRC is more of the same…a bill of goods.
    But its important to ask “what freight?” and what drives an economy? Not cheap imports from China, but that’s another post. The big DOTs never asked that question.
    On Swan Island the Transportation Management Association has been keeping freight moving for over 10 years by helping employees get to work without their car, based on a simple formula: two SOVS = 1 Semi.

  7. Actually, I do know how to spell “brakes”, I just type too fast. And while corrections are much appreciated, please be civil–were a snide remark like that directed to another poster, it would have be deleted.

  8. Chris:“From a policy perspective I’ve always believed that freight interests and alternative transportation advocates have a huge amount of common ground. Fundamentally the overabundance of single-occupancy vehicles is a challenge for both groups.”

    I have it the other way around than you do. I think more car drivers should be angry at trucks who pay scant fees, cause lots of accidents and do a good deal of damage on the roads.

    Whereas trains pay taxes on their land and assets.

    (We need truck freight, obviously).

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