By  on July 11, 2006

WASHINGTON — For a nation of travelers, congestion on the roads and in the skies means more than late arrivals, hours of boredom and headaches — it costs money.

Freight bottlenecks and delayed deliveries because of overloaded airports, docks and highways siphon an estimated $200 billion out of the economy each year and eat away at the profit margins of retailers.

"If power blackouts drained billions of dollars from the economy each year, it would be considered a crisis of unacceptable proportion," then-Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said this spring. "Yet many accept the fact that Americans squander 3.7 billion hours and 2.3 billion gallons of fuel each year sitting in traffic jams, and waste $9.4 billion as a result of airline delays."

Partly in response to retailers, the federal Department of Transportation has made combating congestion throughout the supply chain one of its top priorities.

Congestion on the highways, however, is a multifaceted problem, caused by everything from too many cars on the roads to construction projects and accidents. The issue requires a broad approach.

Still, small and relatively inexpensive changes to the way traffic is managed can have a big impact on gridlock in the country's metropolitan areas, said Deputy Assistant Transportation Secretary Tyler Duvall.

"We're actually pretty close on a lot of urban highways to significant reductions in congestion if you just really manage the system a little bit during peak periods," Duvall said in an interview, noting there is a "congestion curve."

That means traffic on a busy highway will move along until there are just a few too many cars, leading to gridlock, white knuckles and late shipments to stores. Getting some of those cars off of the road during rush hour could make all the difference; only a small reduction in overall traffic could keep cars and trucks moving.

To get those few extra cars off the road, Duvall wants to test converting carpool lanes to "variable-priced hot lanes" that would charge a toll during rush hours.

This is similar to initiatives in London and Stockholm, but so far no U.S. city has agreed to be the first to take the plunge, especially since adding tolls makes it a hard political sell.

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