U.S. Freight Shipping Infrastructure Caught In Steep Decline

June 6, 2018 by Mikayla Avila Vila
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In 2016, wasted time and fuel cost the trucking industry $50 billion dollars, which affected the whole economy with increased delays and caused a surge in the price of everyday products. This was due largely in part to the state of the nation’s infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, projects that by 2020 our infrastructure will cost the economy $1 trillion in losses. Since 1998 the ASCE has released a report card evaluating 16 different areas of the U.S.’s infrastructure, and our cumulative score hasn’t risen above a D+. One bad grade can drag the entire GPA down, but for the nation’s freight shipping infrastructure, it’s multiple bad grades. When the health of one area, like roadways, erodes it will affect the functionality of the rest of the structure, which is why maintenance—historically overlooked—is critical.

Unfortunately, for all the orange cones and men in hardhats we watch while we sit in traffic during our daily commute, the U.S. isn’t investing in the modernization and upkeep of our freight shipping infrastructure the way it should be.  We’ve decided to take a look at six areas that directly affect the freight and logistics industry and their grades according to the ACSE.

Report Card: Roads

Nearly three-quarters of the U.S.’s freight is moved by 32 million trucks. The nation relies on our industry, but with 32% of urban roads and 14% of rural roads in poor shape, the state of our roads is affecting the efficiency of the business.

The ASCE has projected that by 2020 the United States’ buckling freight shipping infrastructure will affect GDP, costing us $1 trillion in growth, and almost 1 million jobs. Highway congestion is projected to rise to 8.3 billion vehicle-hours of delay by 2020, an increase from 6.9 billion in 2014, costing us more than a quarter billion dollars. Poor conditions will increase operating costs for trucks, as well as maintenance, and time wasted seeking out alternative paths for delivery.

Grade: D

Report Card: Bridges

The average design life of a bridge is 50 years, and while the poor conditions of structurally deficient bridges is shrinking, many of them are approaching their expiration date (4 in ten, or 39%, are over 50 years old!). According to the ASCE’s report card, 9.1% of the nation’s bridges were structurally deficient in 2016—it seems like a small percentage, but it counts for 56,007 bridges. What’s scarier is learning that 188 million trips are made across deficient bridges a day.

Luckily, fixing them has been prioritized over the past decade at a state and federal level, though the funds funneled into rehabilitation projects is still not enough.

Grade: C+

Report Card: Rail

Out of the 16 graded areas of infrastructure, the nation’s highest score is in rail. While there’s always room for improvement, especially with regards to passenger rail, freight rail is surprisingly healthy. A good thing, as rail delivers five million tons of freight a day, and is responsible for carrying a third of our exports.

Freight rail owners are cognizant of the need for competent rail systems, so investment in maintaining those facilities has been prioritized.

It has been forecasted that freight shipments will increase by 40% by 2040.

Grade: B

Report Card: Aviation

As integral as airports are to our everyday, as passengers and consumers, the ACSE grade does not reflect that importance. Much of the funding for airports is funneled into security when it should be reallocated towards upgrading airports themselves, as well as archaic traffic control systems. Congestion is one of the biggest problems for aviation. There are upwards to 7,000 aircrafts in the air at a time, and airports see over 2 million passengers a day! If something isn’t done, 80% of airports will see Thanksgiving levels of traffic once a week. This will throw a wrench in the shipping industry’s ability to move and expand.

Grade: D

Report Card: Inland Waterways

Our system of inland waterways is responsible for moving 600 million tons of freight a year (14% of domestic freight), and is our most energy efficient means of transportation, as well as vitally important to our agriculture industry.

Unfortunately, the locks and dams necessary to assist in this movement have a design life of 50 years, and many are well beyond their expiration date which can lead upwards to 121 minutes of delay. These issues are a leading cause of delay in nearly half of cargo-carrying vessels.

Grade: D

Report Card: Ports

Ports are perhaps one of the greater examples of the interconnected freight network, as their success banks on the success of road and rail. Stoppage or congestion in one link will affect the whole system. The importance of ports cannot be stressed enough with 99% of overseas trade passing through them, which was responsible for 26% of the nation’s economy in 2014 (that’s $4.6 trillion in economic activity!).

Due to frequent usage, port facilities and port equipment are upgraded regularly. The biggest hiccup to most port’s viability lays with the size of modern vessels, which can affect the depth of navigation channels, terminal layout, and handling operations. Only a handful of the nation’s ports are equipped to handle oversized ships. There’s definitely room (and need) for improvement.

Grade: C+

So What’s The Plan?

At first blush it may not appear to affect our everyday life, but sitting in rush hour traffic for hours on end, or elbowing our way through airport congestion to get to our terminal are symptomatic of a buckling infrastructure. Current work is a band-aid on a much larger problem: the needed modernization and continued maintenance of the United States’ infrastructure beyond our roads (hard hats off to the many state governments doing what they can to repair their highways). As the nation places importance on increasing jobs and boosting the economy, it’s pressing—now more than ever—that we give our 20th century infrastructure a 21st century rehaul or the economy risks languishing beneath outdated, but ultimately avoidable, standards.

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