Midwest transportation coalition addresses regional freight challenges
Bearing such freight as consumer goods, agricultural products and manufacturing shipments, thousands of semi trucks hurtle daily through the Midwest on the region’s increasingly crowded web of highways and freeways.
These ubiquitous roadway giants play an increasing role in such issues as travel safety, highway bottlenecks, and transportation logistics and security. Now, 10 Midwest state departments of transportation have united in a unique coalition that will enable them, as a region, to tackle issues related to rail, water, highway and air freight transportation.
“The next federal transportation bill has to recognize that freight issues don’t stop at state borders,” says Teresa Adams, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of civil and environmental engineering. “Freight is not like state tourists or commuters all going to the same few destinations. It goes everywhere, and currently accounts for 10 to 20 percent of the vehicles on freeways. It crosses numerous jurisdictions—so it’s not something states can plan for and manage independently.”
The Mississippi Valley Freight Coalition includes representatives from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. “It’s critical to get support from the states at the executive level to move this forward,” says Adams, who directs the National Center for Freight and Infrastructure Research and Education (CFIRE), a national research center that facilitates the coalition.
National transportation emphases focus on citizens’ quality of life and the country’s economic health, productivity and ability to remain globally competitive, says Adams. “Those are related to freight,” she says. “If we don’t have the things we want—or if we can’t afford them—then our quality of life goes down.”
In particular, the country’s economic competitiveness is tied to its ability to deliver freight quickly, safely and cost-effectively—and emerging powerhouse countries like China are making major infrastructure investments right now. “Our competitive advantage has been in our very efficient, very inexpensive transportation—and the developing world is catching up,” says Jason Bittner, CFIRE deputy director.
The 10-state Midwest region generates about 20 percent of the nation’s overall gross domestic product and about one-third of its gross domestic product in agriculture. Both agriculture and manufacturing—another Midwest backbone industry—are heavily reliant on freight transportation, says Bittner.
He estimates that, by the year 2020, the number of semi trucks hauling freight will increase by more than 60 percent. However, the country’s transportation infrastructure isn’t keeping up. “We add maybe one percent a year to lane miles,” he says.
Laced with east-west highways—many of which converge in major cities—the Midwest is the freight gateway to the nation’s coasts, and coalition members are trying to anticipate and learn from transportation problems in those more densely populated areas. “The coalition is getting ahead of the situation in anticipation of the region’s growth,” says Adams.
The effort will establish performance measures to help identify and assess bottlenecks and then generate potential ways to alleviate them. Such solutions, says Bittner, can contribute to the overall efficiency of the transportation system. “Trucking companies aren’t necessarily concerned if a truck has to sit in congestion for four hours if they know it’s always going to be four hours, because they can plan for that,” he says. “But when it’s six hours one day and two hours the next day that makes it a much harder problem to solve.”
Similarly, the time a truck driver spends crawling through a bottleneck eats away at his or her allowed time on the road. “In compliance with hours of service regulations, you have to have rest,” says Bittner. “How do you get rest if you’re on a 16-hour trip? You can’t drive for 16 hours—you have to stop someplace.”
As often is the case, there may not be a truck stop or rest area nearby, so drivers are forced to park on off- or on-ramps. Coalition members are examining ways to locate rest stops strategically throughout the Midwest, and how best to communicate their location to truckers.
Among other coalition initiatives are several strategies for obtaining and leveraging federal funding to improve freight as a region, and for developing recommendations that may help shape national policies that recognize regional transportation issues.
Though each member state has unique freight transportation problems, the coalition goal is to provide a common voice and visibility for the region, says Adams. “What we’re doing is finding that common ground so they can all work together and, as a region, make a case at the federal level for the