Things are not getting any better for commuters in the D.C. area -- or in any other major U.S. city, for that matter.
The situation is alarming. Each year the average commuter in the United States spends more hours stuck in traffic. Redirecting freight from trucks to trains could make a difference.
According to the Transportation Department, the movement of freight in this country is expected to increase two-thirds by 2020. One large truck takes up the highway space of almost four cars, and the average truck also is becoming longer, with the increased use of double- and triple-trailers. With little chance of increasing urban road capacity, this increase in truck volume will compound today's already severe congestion.
Building roads is expensive and politically contentious. However, one freight train can carry the equivalent cargo of 500 trucks; one specially adapted train can carry nearly 300 truck trailers. Trucking companies and railroads already are forming partnerships to combine the best of both modes of transportation.
In the Washington area, shifting 25 percent of freight from trucks to trains during the next 20 years would reduce drivers' commutes by an average of 46.2 hours annually. In addition, at today's prices, such a shift would save each commuter about $720 a year in costs caused by congestion.
Shifting freight from road to rail would be good for the environment too. Freight rail is more fuel efficient per ton-mile than truck transport, and it reduces fuel consumption of automobiles by decreasing the time drivers spend idling in traffic.
For example, with a 25 percent shift of freight from truck to rail by 2025, commuters in the D.C. area could save 447 millions of gallons of fuel a year. Air pollution levels also would improve with an increased use of freight rail.
To implement these changes, the freight rail industry will need more capacity, which will depend on public and private investments. State highway officials, who administer, control and patrol the interstates, estimate that the railroads will generate $142 billion for investment in the next 20 years, but rail infrastructure needs are estimated at more than $200 billion.
Policymakers may want to consider an infrastructure tax incentive to help meet the growing demand for freight rail and keep our country globally competitive. This would enable freight railroads to continue to provide on-time, quality service to shippers and would boost their share of freight transport, while reducing traffic, pollution and congestion costs.
-- Wendell Cox
is president of a firm that does market research and urban policy consulting.