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Trucks good for commerce, bad for roadways

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"New Jersey is the third-largest warehouse-fulfillment distribution center in the nation." -- James Hughes, Rutgers University - ()

The state has responded by taking steps to reinforce roadways, including a 23-cents-a-gallon tax hike in 2016 to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund, but some observers say the moves ignore a key part of the state’s woes.

Similar to the way that cancer turns the body’s very cells against it, a key part of New Jersey’s freight-movement system — trucks — may be helping to destroy the state’s ability to efficiently move goods from one spot to another.

The New Jersey Statewide Freight Plan, released in December by the state Department of Transportation, lays out the foundation.

James Hughes, professor, Rutgers University.
James Hughes, professor, Rutgers University.

“New Jersey is the third largest warehouse-fulfillment-distribution center in the nation,” the report found, citing James Hughes, a Rutgers University professor and former dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. “The state’s unique geographic position and the continuing growth of e-commerce and omnichannel retailing underpin the continuing strength of this sector.”

Yet trucks are currently the dominant mode of freight movement through New Jersey, “which means crowded roadways, more wear and tear on pavement and an increased chance of serious accidents,” said Lazar Spasovic, director of New Jersey Institute of Technology’s National Center for Transportation and Industrial Productivity. “In contrast, rail — which is generally safer as it moves over its own right-of-way, more fuel-efficient, and has less of an impact on traffic and the environment — has a small modal share by tonnage and by value.”

The state DOT report seems to recognize this, noting the need to relieve traffic and other bottlenecks by shifting “a portion of the projected growth in freight volumes from truck to rail or water modes.”

But the DOT’s own projections don’t offer much hope.

In 2015, trucks handled about 365 million tons, valued at $684 billion, of New Jersey’s total state-to-state freight activity of 512 million tons, according to the state report. Rail handled 15 million tons valued at $27 billion.

Lazar Spasovic, director, NJIT's National Center for Transportation and Industrial Productivity.
Lazar Spasovic, director, NJIT's National Center for Transportation and Industrial Productivity.

By 2045, according to DOT estimates, trucks will carry a total of about 554 million tons annually — an increase of about 189 million tons — while rail’s share will rise by only 33 million tons to a total of about 38 million.

Water transport — which is limited by of the need for waterways and port facilities — is in a similar boat. Currently, about 16 million tons of goods are carried by waterborne vessels, and that’s expected to grow to 28 million tons by 2045.

Spasovic thinks he knows why trucking has been so dominant.

“First, the motor carrier has low barriers to enter the market,” he said. “An operator can buy a truck, register it and get the proper insurance and permits, and they’re on the road. In contrast, railroads are extremely capital intensive: you have to buy land and pay property taxes on it, build tracks, and construct terminals. Also, trucks rely on roads, bridges and tunnels that are paid for by the government, or taxpayers.

“Trucks do pay tolls and other fees, but it’s questionable whether those fees, including fuel taxes, actually represent a fair share of the costs they impose on the infrastructure. So manufacturers and retailers often use trucks to haul their freight because the cost to them is cheaper. But society as a whole may be subsidizing that cost.”

Some transportation companies are also concerned.

Solutions may need to be homegrown

“Without safe and transportation, the state’s future is hobbled,” said Ali Maher, director of the Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation at Rutgers University and a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “Without the proper care and investment, the slow degradation of our infrastructure will accelerate. “Since it is unclear when — or if — we will see an infrastructure plan or budget approved by Congress, we have to rely on the ingenuity of engineers, researchers and other innovators for solutions to make infrastructure stronger and last longer.” Meantime, CAIT researchers have developed first-ever condition assessment and monitoring tools that help to keep an eye on the health of roads, bridges and railroads. They also have come up with a couple innovations in research projects with government partners. Those include the RABIT, a robot that uses multiple nondestructive evaluation tools simultaneously to gather data on condition on and below the surface, and THMPER, a mobile evaluation tool for determining bridge load-capacity. CAIT also develops methods, models and materials like specialized asphalt pavements that can extend the useful service life of existing assets and make new ones more durable. “We also give students hands-on opportunities to do research; this gives them practical transportation engineering experience so they enter the workforce better prepared,” Maher said.

“Like many Northeast states, New Jersey’s infrastructure is currently not sufficient to support the increased volume of vehicles on the road,” said Thomas Connery, president and chief operating officer of New England Motor Freight, an Elizabeth-based trucking and logistics company with terminals in Elizabeth, South Plainfield and Pennsauken.

“Systemwide across our network of 38 terminals we handle up to 15 million pounds of freight each month,” he said. “Approximately 25 percent of that travels through New Jersey, making it our largest market for inbound and outbound activity. Although we operate in 15 states, equipment damage as a result of roads that are in disrepair in New Jersey and Metro New York accounts for about 30 percent of our $1.5 million a month spend on vehicle maintenance.”

Connery says he’s all for infrastructure improvement and expansion, but he is not in favor of additional tolls to support those initiatives. “Tolls are already too high in the state.” However, the company would have “little issue” with paying higher diesel fuel taxes if that’s what it took to fund the repairs.

Missing the issue?

Some of the approaches for increasing resilience include using advanced technology “to add capacity, durability, and safety to our existing and new systems,” according to Ali Maher, director of the Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation at Rutgers and a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Ali Maher, director, Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation at Rutgers University.
Ali Maher, director, Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation at Rutgers University.

“The increasingly available robotic-based field testing tools, modeling and simulation, information and risk analysis for multiple scenarios,” Maher said. “These are great advances that we should be using as a matter of course. Coupled with innovative materials, all these technologies promise to revolutionize how we assess, manage, preserve, and renew our infrastructure.”

But Spasovic is concerned.

“I haven’t seen any meaningful discussion about what the optimal freight system should look like,” he said. “And structuring trucking fees to accurately represent their true costs — including the so-called hidden, or excess costs — like pollution and congestion — ought to be part of that discussion.”

One reason for the hesitation to tackle the trucking challenge is that they’re so convenient.

“Trucks are very flexible,” Spasovic noted. “They can come right to your door, and they can bring bulk goods to a consolidation center, where they’re broken down to smaller packages, to be delivered to different locations. Because rail uses fixed tracks, the shipper needs to bring goods to a rail terminal.

Don’t count on an AI fix

Artificial intelligence is probably not the answer to roadway problems just yet. In October 2016, when a self-driving truck made a 120-mile trip through Colorado to deliver 51,744 cans of Budweiser beer, AI enthusiasts cheered it as a step in the right direction for the logistics industry. After all, a robo-truck won’t fall asleep at the wheel. But New Jersey Institute of Technology National Center for Transportation and Industrial Productivity Director Lazar Spasovic isn’t so sure that would help New Jersey’s crowded roads. Said Spasovic: “AI cuts the cost of hiring drivers, but would you like to be in front of a convoy of trucks with no one behind the wheel? All it’ll take is one accident and there’ll be a huge public outcry. We may need dedicated AI vehicle lanes, perhaps with physical barriers. And in any case, the trucks will still be there pounding away at the road, wearing it down and taking up space.”

“A combination truck and rail mode, so-called intermodal or piggyback, where truck trailers are carried on rail flat cars may be a solution. The mode combines the flexibility of truck for local pickup and delivery with the economy of rail line.”

But on a per-ton mile basis, rail is more efficient, and incurs lower labor costs.

“Consider 200 intermodal containers of goods,” said Spasovic, referring to giant shipping boxes designed to move from ship to rail to truck. “With a train, you basically need a two-person crew to move those 200 boxes. If you move them by truck, you generally need 200 trucks, with a total of at least 200 drivers.”

“The state needs to examine two primary issues,” says Spasovic. “One is how to incentive shippers to utilize rail to a greater extent; and the second is how to pay for the infrastructure improvements we’ll need to accommodate more rail usage.”

He admits, though, that a railroad solution will be expensive. And the DOT report provides a comprehensive list of needed improvements.

For one thing, he notes, railroad tracks would have to be reinforced to take heavier loads, and bridges may need to be raised higher to accommodate double-stacked and other rail cars that will carry more loads. “It’s like the seven-year, $1.6 billion project that raised the Bayonne Bridge, so the larger Panamax vessels could get through,” he says. “It was expensive, but we had to do it to stay competitive. Moving some trucks off the highways will improve safety, reduce congestion, and improve employee productivity with a less time-consuming commute. So it would make sense for us to invest in rail in order to reap those commuter benefits.”

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