Traffic May Overshadow Solar Eclipse Along Trucking Routes

August 18, 2017 by Sarah Holder, @ptsarahdactyl

Monday’s total solar eclipse will bathe a large stretch of the U.S. in darkness, traffic, congestion and a general logistical mess.

Millions of spectators will travel to states in the 70-mile “path of totality” in search of the best viewing spots to experience the once-in-a-lifetime celestial event. State traffic departments, trucking companies and drivers are issuing warnings, rerouting cargo and changing itineraries to avoid the crush.

“I’ve checked with guys who’ve been here for decades, and we’ve never seen anything remotely like this,” said Doug McGee of the Wyoming Department of Transportation. “The closest thing … is during severe winter weather when we have closure on a route. This will be like a storm day, except it’s the entire state.”

Other agencies agree. Monday marks “a planned special event for which there has been no recent precedent in the United States,” the Federal Highway Administration said in a statement.

The last total solar eclipse occurred in the U.S. in 1918, when the horse and buggy were still widely used.

Shipping giant FedEx told clients in an email that it is closely monitoring the potential effects of the eclipse and warned of  delivery delays.

“Our first priority is the safety and well-being of our team members, and we will implement contingency plans as necessary,” the company said. “Events of this nature often cause pickup and delivery delays and disruptions for FedEx customers. FedEx is prepared to provide service to the best of its ability.”

State DOTs have spent more than a year preparing for the eclipse, coordinating over state lines, among city administrators and law enforcement officers to minimize accident risks and maximize roadway efficiency.

The agencies are urging trucking companies to plan ahead.

“If it’s a product that could wait, we’re advising people not to accept deliveries,” said Jan Jarvis, chief executive of the Oregon Trucking Assn. The state expects an influx of more than 1 million eclipse viewers.

Wyoming expects traffic volume like it’s never seen before, McGee said.

“That’s going to be a real challenge, especially for companies that do overnight or speedy delivery,” McGee said.

Several states have put limits on the size and weight of vehicles allowed on the road. But it is a patchwork set of rules. Depending on the state, the limits start and end at different hours and on different days. They generally begin from Thursday to Sunday, and end from Monday at midnight to midday Tuesday. Drivers whose routes span multiple districts might make it through one state only to be stopped in another.

Oregon is restricting over-width loads only; while Wyoming and Colorado placed restrictions on both oversize and overweight loads; and in Idaho and Nebraska, only oversize loads are restricted. In Missouri, super loads are banned. Seven other states in the path of totality aren’t issuing any permit restrictions, and South Carolina is implementing a policy of “no rest.” Wyoming, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Tennessee have also suspended most construction projects to avoid lane closures.

2017 Solar Eclipse Map

The line of totality for the 2017 solar eclipse. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Congestion like this doesn’t just mean that deliveries and pick-ups will stall. Some states warn of vehicles becoming stranded in fuel deserts, caught miles from the nearest refill station. This is a normal phenomenon only exacerbated by the circumstances of the eclipse.

“Every time you drive in Wyoming there are long stretches of miles in between communities,” said Sheila Foertsch, managing director of the Wyoming Trucking Assn. “There are always opportunities to run out of fuel.”

Stephanie Klang

Stephanie Klang

Stephanie Klang, a long-haul trucker from Diamond, Mo., is staying put, watching the eclipse from her house. Klang is urging Contract Freighters Inc., the carrier that employs her, to prepare other drivers for complete stoppages in the areas of totality.

“Already, Interstate 29 through St. Joseph, Mo., has signs up saying, ‘Be ready for congestion,’” she said. “I can just see parking is going to be at a premium – people just stopping on the side of the road.”

XPO Logistics is making some adjustments, said Tony Brooks, president of the company’s LTL, or less-than-truckload, business.

“By optimizing our routes around popular tourist areas along the eclipse path, we will be able to avoid severely congested areas and maintain our industry best on-time service performance for our customers,” Brooks said.

Yet some trucking and shipping companies voiced less concern.

“There’s only a very small percentage of country that’ll be in the line of totality,” said Matt O’Connor, a UPS spokesman. “Routes are going to go out in normal operation.”

UPS schedules time-definite deliveries, and time-definite pick-ups — both commitments that it will have to keep.

“A lot of tractor trailers from one facility to another don’t run at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, they don’t run midday” when most eclipse-watchers will be out, he said. They’ll be on the road long before, and long after.

American Central Transport of Kansas City, Mo., expects 1.2 million drivers to be on the road in Missouri this weekend.

“We’re encouraging drivers to have their headlights on, because it will be like going from dawn to dusk,” a representative said.

But in fact, no one can predict how the traffic will play out, industry representatives said.

“It’s impossible to plan for,” Jarvis said. “Ask me on Tuesday how it went.”

Editor’s note: Trucks.com staff writer Clarissa Hawes contributed to this report.

Read Next: Traffic Congestion Costs Trucking Industry $63 Billion Annually

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