By Derek Spellman
Even before last month’s deadly turnpike crash in Oklahoma, transportation planners across the country were talking about how to go about separating cars from trucks.
In recent years, proposals to create “truck-only lanes” have gained ground as governments look not only at improving safety but also at how to cope with projected increases in traffic volume and how to more efficiently move freight.
“I think that it has gained traction for a lot of different reasons,” said Randy Mullett, vice president of government relations and public affairs for Con-Way Inc., a trucking company that has a base in Joplin.
Still, it’s mostly unexplored territory. Although such lanes have seen limited use over short distances in New Jersey, California and Texas, nothing large-scale has been implemented.
Click the player to view a video produced by the Missouri Department of Transportation discussing the construction and benefits of designated truck lanes on Interstate-70 across Missouri.
Transportation and trucking officials like the idea, although the key questions are how to pay the costs and who would pay them. Some highway-safety advocates have balked at even the idea, partly because its staggering costs and logistics render it unfeasible, partly because of safety concerns.
Missouri, meanwhile, could be the first real experiment.
Numbers and I-70
Of the 41,059 people killed in vehicle crashes in 2007, 12 percent of them died in crashes involving a large truck, according to the most recent report from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. About 17 percent of those killed in the large-truck crashes were the occupants of the large trucks.
Last month, a tractor-trailer plowed into a line of stopped cars on the Will Rogers Turnpike in northeast Oklahoma, killing 10 people. The truck driver, Donald Creed, survived.
Authorities are still investigating the accident but have speculated that driver fatigue might have been a cause. Creed, a driver for Associated Wholesale Grocers Inc., had worked 10 hours when the crash occurred June 26. Creed was within the legal limits, although authorities said the long hours and heat of that day might have led to fatigue.
There is little hard data as to whether truck-only lanes would improve safety on the roadways and help prevent such crashes.
Mullett said, intuitively, one would think it would, although “a lot of the data is assumptive at this point.”
Missouri could be the first to put it to the test on a large-scale.
A study charged with exploring needed long-term improvements to Interstate 70 recently recommended the state add four truck-only lanes to the stretch between Kansas City and St. Louis as the best option.
That proposal calls for construction of two truck-only lanes and two or more general-purpose lanes in each direction along the existing I-70 highway. The truck-only lanes would be reserved for vehicles that include tractor-trailers, delivery trucks and buses, and be separated from the general-purpose lanes with concrete barriers or grassed areas.
“We have talked to very few people who don’t like the idea,” said Bob Brendel, the Missouri Department of Transportation’s project manager for the I-70 study.
Missouri started weighing the idea several years ago, Brendel said, as it started looking at how to address projected increases in traffic volumes on I-70. First built in the 1950s, the intended lifespan of the highway was about 20 years. The state says the highway needs to be rebuilt.
During discussions about how to do that, Brendel said, the public indicated it did not like the growing number of trucks on the highway. That number is projected to jump from 10,000 per day now to 20,000 by 2030.
If implemented, the truck-only lanes on I-70 “would be a demonstration of an innovative concept that could have other applications in the United States,” he said.
Trucks are involved in 28 percent of the accidents and 40 percent of the fatalities on I-70, according to MoDOT.
But the cost of the truck-only option is formidable: Up to $4 billion, according to the study.
That compares with a cost of up to $3.5 billion to rebuild and widen I-70 to six lanes, although the truck-only option would mean a total of eight lanes throughout I-70.
“It’s a big-ticket item no matter how you do it,” Brendel said.
There is no funding for either option right now. Brendel said some of the proposed options include tolls, public and private partnerships or a one-cent sales tax.
“Ultimately, the funding is going to be decided by the Legislature or the people,” he said.
Except how the cost is borne is part of the issue.
Mullett, of Con-Way, said his company supports the concept, but part of the issue is how it would be financed.
The American Trucking Association, a national affiliation of state trucking organizations, generally supports truck-only-lane projects so long as they do not require toll lanes or, if they do, that the toll lanes are voluntary, said Clayton Boyce, the organization’s vice president of public affairs.
The organization also generally opposes the use of private-public partnerships to fund transportation projects, partly because private companies have higher long-term borrowing costs than public entities that ultimately are passed on to motorists in the form of higher tolls.
“Our position is that the fuel tax is easier and it should be increased,” Boyce said of transportation funding, noting that the federal highway trust fund “is going broke every year.”
The fuel tax, he said, is the easiest funding mechanism to administer and provides the most funding for transportation.
On the safety of truck-only lanes, he said, “If you separate cars from trucks on the highways, you will see fewer accidents.”
But Jerry Donaldson, senior research director for the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said there are problems even with a truck-only option.
Truck-only lanes would only increase the total number of rigs traveling across the country, magnifying the effects of exhaust emissions, increasing the amount of fuel that trucks consume and intensifying the wear and tear on roads that will mean higher maintenance costs, he argued.
“It’s lose, lose, lose, lose,” Donaldson said. “There is no win.”
Even truck-only lanes, which would concentrate trucks, would not eliminate the risks of trucks being involved in crashes with other trucks or the risks of trucks crossing the buffers separating the lanes.
And those concerns don’t even factor in the “gargantuan” right-of-way-acquisition and eminent-domain issues transportation planners would face for such projects, Donaldson said. It’s the chief reason, he said, why a number of states “consider” the truck-only option but then abandon it.
“The idea is completely not feasible,” he said.
Donaldson’s proposal? Revive the nation’s railroad system, shifting more of the long-distance freight movement from trucks to railroads.
That arrangement, he said, would reduce the number of trucks on the road, cut back on the long distances and accompanying driver fatigue that truck drivers would face, and reduce both maintenance costs and the risk of crashes.
He acknowledged that option, too, posed challenges, particularly for states like Missouri that do not have long-haul rail freight lines already paralleling highways.
“There are no good options,” he said. “We are painted into a corner.”
The Missouri Department of Transportation is applying for a $200 million federal grant, available through the stimulus plan, to build up to 30 miles of truck-only lanes on the stretch of I-70 running through Saline and Cooper counties. If approved, that project would provide a glimpse into how truck-only lanes work, according to Bob Brendel, of MoDOT.
<img src="http://www.joplinglobeonline.com/images/zope/extra.gif" border=0>Missouri could be testing ground for truck-only lanes<font color="#ff0000"> w/ MoDOT video</font>
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