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Vital Interstates Named Corridors of the Future

Mon January 07, 2008 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson

The interstate highway system is the lifeblood of American commerce and the prospect of those major arteries becoming clogged is a looming nightmare for the nation’s economic policy makers.

To reduce the chance that congestion will continue to grow until the coast-to-coast flow of vehicles is functionally impaired, the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2006 launched a program called “Corridors of the Future.”

Early this year, the program moves to a stage where federal funding and regional planning will come together to examine in great detail — and to fix — the vulnerable parts of six major traffic routes. The variety of projects entailed in the program bodes well for highway construction contractors and suppliers for some years to come.

“We are using a comprehensive approach to fighting congestion along these major interstate routes. What we are doing represents a real break from past approaches that have failed to address growing congestion along our busiest corridors,” Deputy U.S. Secretary of Transportation Thomas J. Barrett said in September as he announced the winning applicants for the program.

The multi-state character of the program is the department’s “real break from past approaches.” Recognizing that interstate highways sometimes serve different interests within a state’s boundaries than they serve a region or the nation as a whole, Barrett and other department officials came up with a program that erases borders as easily as interstate travelers do on their cross-country trips.

The department received 38 multi-state applications for consideration as a “Corridor of the Future,” from which the department selected a half dozen that touch much of the country. The winning regional routes, and the tentative funding for them, are:

• Interstate 95 running along the Atlantic Ocean through five Southeastern states — Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia ($21.8 million)

• Interstate 70 running through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio ($5 million)

• Interstate 15 connecting California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah ($15 million)

• Interstate 5 running up the West Coast through California, Oregon and Washington ($15 million)

• Interstate 10, which cuts across the underbelly of the United States from California all the way to Florida, passing through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. ($8.6 million)

• Interstate 69, the southwest portion of which exists as a designated roadway only on paper, will supplant and supplement routes swinging northward through the United States from Texas to Michigan. It passes through Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana. ($800,000)

While many more of the applications were worthy, U.S. DOT spokesman Ian Grossman said a key factor in winning inclusion in the federal program was the potential impact on the movement of goods, rather than people.

“The Corridors of the Future program primarily is … to fight congestion,” Grossman said from an office in Washington, D.C.,“but in these six corridors the priority is moving freight. There were a combination of factors in selecting winning applicants and the quality of an application certainly was paramount, but the fact that these are congested freight routes was the key.”

Grossman said the emphasis on movement of freight “is something that has been discussed for a number of years. As it grows more severe, it is becoming a key need to address. There have been other attempts to focus on freight corridors, but focusing on such a small handful of significant corridors is a real step forward. These are some of the routes that most impact moving freight across the country.”

Interstate 70

One of the applications intensively focused on trucking is the I-70 corridor from Missouri into Ohio. DOT leaders in those states, in effect, propose building a separate interstate for trucks.

The proposal, as the application itself states, is to add “four dedicated truck lanes to the existing infrastructure, two in each direction, with at least one interchange per county providing access to the truck lanes. It includes, conceptually, truck staging areas. These lanes present the opportunity to [test] size and weight increases on a [highway] dedicated to trucks. The dedicated truck lanes are seen as a way to reduce congestion, improve safety, and offset the maintenance costs of general purpose lanes.”

One in four vehicles moving along I-70 today is carrying freight, said officials in the four states. Average daily truck traffic along the corridor is 11,000, with as many as 26,000 truck sightings along the 750-mi. (1,200-km) route some days. The officials project that the daily average in 20 years will be 25,000 (along with 75,000 cars) and both urban and rural stretches of the road will have become officially “congested” at least 85 percent of the time unless something is done to decongest the route.

None of this is theoretical to Missouri transportation officials, who have watched the volume of truck and car traffic grow and grow on their state’s segment of I-70.

“A large and growing percentage of traffic is truck traffic,” said Jeff Briggs, a spokesman of Missouri DOT. “Truck traffic is growing at a much higher percent than auto traffic. There are parts of I-70 across rural Missouri where the presence of truck traffic is as high as 40 percent.”

Of 13 million vehicle-miles traveled each day on I-70 in Missouri, Briggs said the percentage of auto traffic is growing one percent a year, while truck traffic’s percentage growth is two to three percent a year.

Extrapolating that kind of growth over the next two decades produces the kind of numbers that persuaded Missouri transportation officials to study, on their own, the prospect of adding a traffic lane in each direction and dedicating it for trucks only.

“So now we will take a portion of the Corridors of the Future money and do a supplemental study to learn what it would cost to go to four lanes [two in each direction],” Briggs said.

The Missouri DOT spokesman said there are “a lot of details we don’t have. Those details will come out of the study.”

A Kansas City, Mo., multidisciplinary consulting firm — HNTB Corporation — is contracted to conclude its examination of the situation by the end of this year.

The four states involved in the I-70 application will be studying the situation for the next little while. A joint feasibility study of the truck-lane concept is the first order of business, followed by a study to quantify demand for the enhanced route, then an environmental study and ultimately the negotiation of a multi-state agreement to correct the situation.

At the federal level as well, the next stage is to get a grasp of the details.

“We are working to finalize formal agreements and are hoping that by the spring of ’08 we can detail everyone’s role, including how financing will work, the planning and design processes and so on,” said Grossman, the U.S. DOT spokesman.

Interstate 10

Because the corridors differ in their approaches to traffic challenges, the details of funding and planning will vary widely. Missouri’s approach, for example, is pretty straight forward: Enough trucks are rumbling along I-70 to warrant construction of four new lanes just for 18-wheelers and smaller haulers all the way from Kansas City, Mo., to Bridgeport, Ohio.

But the application for the Interstate 10 corridor, which rambles from one coast to another, is wedded largely to “operational improvements.” These include building some bypasses around “bottlenecks” in the El Paso, Texas, and Phoenix, Ariz., urban areas, widening some segments and segregating trucks from autos in several urban stretches of the 2,400-mi. (3,840-km) corridor.

But the “first step” in meeting the I-10 challenges, officials in the corridor said, is establishing an “intelligent traffic system architecture” for the interstate. ITS incorporates wireless and other communication technologies into infrastructure and vehicles in order to safely speed traffic along and splinter congestion into manageable pieces. The federal Department of Transportation models ITS architecture and advocates its use at state levels.

Interstate 95

The I-95 Corridor Coalition also proposes more ITS application to improve the flow of traffic from Florida to the nation’s capital. The 1,000 mi. (1,600 km) stretch in the designated portion of I-95 will be reconstructed and improved, but the only new construction envisioned is the addition of one or two lanes in some areas.

“We might possibly add a lane, especially in North Carolina,” said George Schoener, executive director of the I-95 Corridor Coalition, “but the rest of it is to better manage what is already there.”

Schoener brushed aside the idea that current talk at state levels of new tollbooths on the border of North Carolina and Virginia is at cross-purposes with the aim of the Corridors of the Future program to speed traffic along the major north-south artery. Schoener said toll collection would not be a complication because modern toll technology does not cause congestion.

“The technology has changed completely,” he said. “There is now a concept called open road tolling. Motorists go through these overhead devices at 55 miles per hour or 70 miles per hour and the toll is automatically collected.”

Projections for I-95 traffic alarm transportation officials, with daily truck traffic alone expected to double in the next 20 years. Schoener sees the Corridor program as “a great first step. At least it is recognition that you have to look at I-95 as a long-distance corridor and not just a short span in a given state.”

Interstate 15

The Interstate 15 corridor from San Diego, Calif., to Salt Lake City, Utah, is affected by Union Pacific Railroad’s opening of what is termed “the country’s third largest intermodal rail yard” on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. To meet the needs of this trucking nucleus, the I-15 corridor plan includes an ITS truck parking proposal, two possible toll roads to bypass urban areas such as Las Vegas, Nev., and some highway and bridge reconstruction.

To make some of the concepts work will involve, in the wording of the application, “innovative public-private partnerships that will require legislative changes in a number of the states.”

Interstate 5

The Interstate 5 corridor plan is much simpler. It focuses — not exclusively, but primarily — on one bottleneck on the three-state route: the Columbia River bridge crossing that connects Vancouver, Wash., and Portland, Ore.

The river was crossed with a bridge in 1917 and a second adjacent span was erected in 1958. Now, 135,000 vehicles cross the pair of bridges each day. During morning and evening commuter hours, the lift spans in the bridges are not lifted, which helps vehicular flow but halts river traffic. Because each bridge was built on timber pilings, private and public concern mounts about structural deterioration and about the pilings’ ability to withstand the shock of earthquakes.

The two alternatives hammered out by a 39-member task force two years ago were to replace the pair of bridges with a new and higher six-lane bridge or to supplement the existing bridges by building a new four-lane span. The Corridors of the Future application said that solving the bridge problem “offers the opportunity for significant congestion reduction and mobility improvements.”

The program’s discretionary funding could help fund some of the preliminary studies for the project. A draft of an environmental impact statement is expected in early 2008.

Interstate 69

The only interstate Corridors of the Future application to exist mostly in the heads of transportation officials is for the southern part of Interstate 69. From Indianapolis, Ind., north to the Canadian border in Port Huron, Mich., I-69 is a typical busy interstate. But from Indianapolis southwest to Texas, the highway consists of short segments of designated I-69 and roadways that intersect with it.

Because completion of I-69 would create a 2,680-mi. (4,280-km) avenue running from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, some public officials have called it the NAFTA highway, an allusion to the trade agreement dating from the 1990s. There seems little doubt that a four-lane or six-lane interstate bisecting the heart of the country inevitably would increase freight traffic.

“If demand is high enough, we would have separate facilities [lanes] for trucks along the route,” said Jack Heiss, the TransTexas Corridor Project manager. “But these are all concepts. It has yet to be proven that there will be enough traffic to support the concepts.”

Some agreements among the states already have been signed and development work begun, such as right-of-way acquisition and environmental studies. But much of the project remains theoretical.

“We have just issued requests for proposals from the private development community,” Heiss said. “I am curious to see what they will come back with.”

The proposals are due by March.

Ian Grossman, the federal DOT spokesman, said the Corridors of the Future program should not be dismissed as theoretical, given the relatively little funding it provides.

“It is seed money to set a number of projects in motion,” Grossman said of the modest funding. “We don’t expect to accomplish everything, but it is a significant step.”

He then added that the program is more than just seed money.

“The program is a very focused investment, but it is an investment that goes beyond monetary investment,” he said.

Another key feature of the program is the additional access to federal support given the six Corridors partners. In short, involvement in the program will open doors.

“They will have priority access to experts at the U.S. Department of Transportation. In the future if they choose to apply for different programs, they will get priority preference treatment because they have been involved in the Corridors program,” Grossman said.

Grossman was asked if the program is strong and unique enough to survive a change in administration. A new president of the United States will be elected this November, and, in all likelihood, a new secretary of the Department of Transportation will be named.

Grossman believes the program will continue.

“Transportation is something that affects everyone in the country regardless of political leanings,” he said. “I think a new administration will continue with these and other initiatives to relieve congestion and move freight.” CEG

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