Illinois, Missouri, other states pushing for truck-only lanes

Sunday, July 22, 2007
Trucker Earl Sylvain, 71, of the Dayton suburb of Huber Heights, sat in the cab of his truck in Dayton, Ohio. Jet Express transports engines on Interstate 75 from Dayton to Detroit for vehicle assembly, and automakers depend on a steady flow to keep production going.

Karen Kuhn sometimes finds it difficult to maneuver on interstate highways because there are so many freight trucks.

"It can get a little tense when you're hemmed in on three sides by these truckers," said Kuhn, 60, of Fairfield, Ohio. "I'm trying to get into the fast lane, and they're trying to get into the right lane, and it's a stalemate."

She's among a growing number of people who support the idea of truck-only lanes on interstate expressways, as both truck and passenger traffic increase.

At least nine states throughout the industrial Midwest and in the booming Sun Belt are considering proposals to separate big rigs from cars on stretches of interstates, hoping to reduce congestion, improve safety and increase commerce by moving goods faster

Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri are suggesting a truck-only lane on a 789-mile stretch of Interstate 70.

Trucks moved with smaller vehicles on Interstate 75 in Dayton, Ohio. Semitrailers, cars and small trucks dance together on the nation's highways, but increasingly states are pushing proposals that would separate 80,000-pound big rigs from cars that weigh as little as 1,800 pounds. (AL BEHRMAN ~ Associated Press)

The I-70 corridor rolls through or by Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, and is within 25 miles of six major international airports and air-cargo hubs. The highway teems with trucks because of the high concentration of manufacturing, retail and other industries nearby -- and much of the I-70 corridor is expected to reach or exceed capacity by 2030.

Georgia is considering truck-only lanes on a 27-mile stretch of Interstate 75 northwest of Atlanta and a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 285 that skirts the city. Truck congestion in the area is expected to increase by up to 60 percent in the next 20 years.

"This is such a through point for trucks. We've got to do something," said David Spear, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Transportation.

States aren't yet sure how they would pay for the special lanes. Tolls are one option; public-private partnerships another.

But some truckers question the wisdom of designated lanes and many oppose having to pay tolls for special lanes without being given the option of using non-toll routes.

Trucker Earl Sylvain, 71, of the Dayton suburb of Huber Heights, said if trucks were required to stay in one lane, slower trucks with heavier loads would hold the others up.

"You still would have the same congestion," he said. "You've got just as many trucks out here."

Dan Middleton, program manager with the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M, who is conducting a study on truck lanes, said they are a good idea for improving traffic flow, but truckers would want two lanes or some way to pass slower trucks.

David Schrank, a mobility research scientist with the institute, said one problem is figuring out how to get trucks smoothly back into general traffic once the truck-only corridor ends.

But the idea is gaining momentum as highways become busier.

Travel on the nation's highways has nearly doubled since 1980, while the highway system has expanded by about 3 percent. There are 2.9 million large trucks traveling the nation's highways, up from 2.6 million in 2000 and that figure is expected to increase by 75,000 each year, according to the American Trucking Associations.

Nevada is pushing for truck-only lanes in areas along Interstate 80 and Interstate 15, which carry cargo east through Nevada from the ports of Oakland and Los Angeles, respectively.

Dennis Taylor, chief of program development for the Nevada Department of Transportation, said truck-only lanes would be especially effective in improving traffic flow because of steep grades that cause trucks to constantly slow down and speed up.

A proposal to improve Interstate 10, a 2,650-mile highway that runs from Florida to California, crossing eight states, identifies several areas that could become truck-only bypass highways. They include Phoenix and Houston.

The Nevada proposal, as well as the Interstates 10 and 70 proposals, are among 14 semifinalists under review by the U.S Department of Transportation, which will select five this summer to ease highway congestion. The agency will speed up the permitting process and help states find ways to finance the projects.

A congressional commission also is reviewing the idea of truck-only lanes and truck-only highways.

Financing is a sticking point.

Trucking pays 43 percent of the annual $35 billion in user fees for federal highways, according to the trucking associations. Truckers also pay a federal diesel fuel tax of 24.4 cents a gallon, a 12 percent excise tax on new trucks, an annual vehicle-use tax and a tax on tires.

But safety may be the larger issue.

In 2005, 442,000 large trucks were involved in crashes -- 309,000 of them with other vehicles and 4,932 of them fatal, the most since 2000. However, the number of people killed in large-truck crashes is expected to be down 3.7 percent in 2006, according to projections by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"Our freight-rail system and interstate national highway system is basically saturated," said Jack Schenendorf, vice chairman of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission. "In some really high-traffic corridors, it may make sense to try to separate freight and passengers."

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