Written by Robert W. Poole Jr., Director of Transportation Policy at the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit public policy think tank. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
Truck platooning looks likely to be one of the first serious applications of vehicle automation to be approved for use on long-distance highways.
Average fuel savings for trucks in a platoon have been demonstrated to be 7 percent to 9 percent, depending on the length of the platoon, where tightly contained, digitally connected packs of two or more trucks drive in formation to reduce wind resistance and increase fuel efficiency. But when it comes to writing regulations for regular platoon operations, states are likely to require dedicated truck lanes.
Why? Because even a three-truck platoon will function as a visual and physical barrier for cars needing to get on or off the interstate, and cars attempting to dart between trucks in a platoon represent a new safety hazard. From drawing board to opening it can take six to 10 years for major highway projects. That means we need to start planning dedicated truck lanes, or DTLs, that will be needed in primary truck corridors now.
While fuel savings from platooning offer value-added to trucking companies, much greater value would come from allowing longer combination vehicles into the new dedicated truck lanes. A 2002 Reason Foundation study of DTLs inspired by a suggestion from a staffer at the American Trucking Associations estimated that the industry could achieve major increases in productivity (ton-miles per driver) fuel savings (fewer gallons per ton-mile) and reduced emissions (less CO2 per ton-mile) through the use of longer double-trailer rigs and short triple-trailer rigs on these separate lanes.
Dedicated truck lanes could be built to handle significantly higher gross weights than the 80,000 pounds of a typical big rig today, paving the way for the use of double and triple trailer combinations on semi-trucks in many states where they are not legal today.
Still, there is a major obstacle to the development of dedicated truck lanes – how to pay for them at a time when federal and state fuel taxes barely cover the operating and maintenance costs of our existing highways. Reason’s 2002 study proposed tolls for the DTLs on the grounds that productivity gains and fuel savings would offset the cost of the tolls.
That premise was tested in 2005, when a private consortium proposed adding truck-only toll lanes to all 325 miles of I-81 in Virginia. Both the ATA and its Virginia affiliate fought and eventually defeated the proposal, partly on the grounds that it was unfair to single out trucks to pay for what amounted to a complete reconstruction of that interstate. The proponents and the Virginia Department of Transportation threw in the towel in 2008.
Several years later, the federal Transportation Department funded a four-state Corridors of the Future project looking at how to reconstruct the aging I-70 from Kansas City on the west to the Ohio/Pennsylvania state line on the east. The four-year project, managed by civil engineering firm HNTB and Wilbur Smith Associates for the four state governments, included active participation by the state trucking associations of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. The preferred alternative was to replace the four-lane I-70 with an eight-lane configuration, with two lanes each way being dedicated truck lanes that allow the use of long combination vehicles.
Given the estimated $24-billion cost of this 767-mile makeover, the study concluded that the only feasible way to bring it about was to finance the project using long-term revenue bonds, funded by tolls charged to all vehicles (not just trucks). The four state trucking associations did not dissent from the consensus findings, but they have not lobbied for the project either. Missouri obtained one of the slots in a three-state federal pilot program that allows toll-financed interstate reconstruction, but its Legislature has not authorized the project to be carried out.
Last year the Reason Foundation added a new ingredient to the DTL concept: a policy proposal called “truck-friendly tolling.” Its four basic principles were as follows:
- Provide rebates of current fuel taxes for all miles driven on newly tolled reconstructed interstates (i.e., no “double taxation”);
- Charge only enough to cover the capital and operating costs of the rebuilt and expanded highway — and guarantee this by federal and state legislation (i.e., tolls as purely user fees);
- Begin tolling only after the new or rebuilt capacity is ready for use (i.e., charge only when delivering better value); and
- Provide a higher level of service than on non-tolled interstates.
Dedicated truck lanes would be one example of a higher level of service on second-generation interstates. Another would be turnpike-type service plazas instead of just “rest areas” with vending machines. These could include safe parking places for truckers needing to sleep to comply with hours-of-service regulations. They might also include alternative fuel infrastructure such as natural-gas stations, electric recharging or possibly hydrogen fuel cell fueling.
Reason’s truck-friendly tolling study used Federal Highway Administration Freight Analysis Framework data to identify 11 mostly multistate interstate corridors on which truck traffic was projected to reach or exceed 40 percent of total traffic between 2020 and 2040. We identified all of these as good candidates for dedicated truck lanes.
The ATA has spent more than two decades advocating increased federal gasoline and diesel taxes to no avail. Chris Spear, the trade group’s chief executive, announced several months ago that the organization was basically conceding this effort’s failure. This week he appointed 11 industry leaders to an Infrastructure Funding Task Force “to evaluate all potential sources of funding for our roads and bridges.” The announcement included the caveat that ATA would continue its “historic support for the fuel tax [and] opposition to tolling existing highways.” (emphasis added)
I have no problem with that, since a number of states in the past have sought to slap tolls on existing interstates, turning them into cash cows. But using tolls that are legally constrained to be pure user fees to pay for replacing obsolete interstate bridges and pavements is a different concept — especially if it includes dedicated truck lanes and rebates of existing fuel taxes.
The incoming Trump administration has expressed support for a major effort to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure, drawing in private capital to finance long-term public-private partnerships that have dedicated user-fee revenue streams. What I’ve outlined in this article would fit very well into that framework.
Editor’s note: Robert W. Poole Jr. is Director of Transportation Policy at the Reason Foundation. He holds two Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering degrees and has advised the Federal Highway Administration and a number of state departments of transportation. He is a member of the Transportation Research Board’s Managed Lanes Committee.