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Move over 'Super 70'-this one is really big: Department of Transportation hoping for summer launch of study to add truck lanes to 800 miles of I-70

May 26, 2008

Imagine driving the car down an interstate highway devoid of tractor trailers.

It could dramatically improve traffic flow and safety, but it would sever supply chains and bring manufacturing to a halt-to say nothing of the state's logistics industry.

But how about putting those trucks in their own lanes, separated from cars and light trucks?

What seemed merely a fanciful concept for Interstate 70 when highway planners tossed it out about a year ago is gaining momentum. The Indiana Department of Transportation hopes to wrap up within weeks a development agreement with three other states and the Federal Highway Administration that ensures everyone is on board studying the concept of dedicated truck lanes for I-70.

At issue is an 800-mile stretch of I-70 in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. In places, semis have so clogged the interstate that one could almost jump from trailer to trailer.

The potential solution, if built, would be nothing short of reinvention of the interstate.

Trucks would zoom down their own lanes, some hauling three or more trailers in tandem. Truck lanes would swing off to intermodal staging areas to transfer cargo to and from nearby rail yards or water ports or maybe even to the FedEx air cargo hub in Indianapolis.

High-tech highway

Electronic gadgets would weigh trucks while in motion, without their having to stop at weigh stations. Sophisticated monitoring of road conditions ahead would allow a driver to make better decisions on alternative routes or to schedule a rest period.

And, oh, yeah: The thing would be an engineering nightmare to build in urban areas and could cost $30 billion, in today's dollars.

It's a lot for local and state leaders to grasp.

"I think for policymakers and planners ... their necks may swivel," said Keith Bucklew, director of freight mobility at INDOT.

This so-called "next generation mobility system" was part of INDOT's proposed submission to the U.S. Department of Transportation for its "Corridors of the Future" project to be considered nationwide.

The goal is to reduce congestion, improve safety and boost economic growth. The I-70 proposal was one of six corridors selected by the feds for analysis. The Federal Highway Administration has provided a $5 million grant toward a study. Bucklew said the states would like to hire a consultant this summer to start that work.

"There's just a huge amount of study needed to see if this bird will fly," he said. INDOT is serving as the lead agency among the four states.

So far, it appears the 800-mile truck corridor would be the longest in the world, Bucklew said. The challenge of such a project is daunting, if only from an engineering standpoint.

In rural areas, it could be as relatively simple as dropping truck lanes into the grassy medians. Some conceptual drawings show two truck lanes in each direction. About 35 percent of the I-70 corridor passes through major cities such as St. Louis, Indianapolis and Columbus. I-70 would need to be not only widened but possibly reconfigured. Adding lanes also poses design challenges for interchanges. One mitigating factor is that trucks likely wouldn't need access to all the interchanges available to cars, because the truck lanes would be intended for long-haul runs.

A number of potential benefits makes the concept compelling. In 2004, the four-state area of I-70 had more than 10,000 crashes. While only 18 percent involved trucks, 36 percent of those involved fatalities, primarily to passenger-car occupants.

Reducing congestion

The truck lanes also could reduce congestion. On I-70 in Indianapolis, travel delays in 2003 amounted to 21,358 hours. That resulted in extra fuel and other costs totaling $362 million, according to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute.

One aim of the study would be to assess potential benefits to the trucking industry and economy in general. Does it significantly improve productivity or safety, for example? wonders Darrin Roth, director of highway operations for the American Trucking Associations.

Allowing multiple trailers to be hauled behind a single tractor would appeal to some trucking companies, for example, but not to others. These are important questions needing answers because "tolls have been mentioned as the most likely way to pay for it," Roth said.

Added Bucklew: "If they can get the production gains we envision ... if it's a win-win, then we would expect to see buyin from the motor carriers."

The 800-mile route passes by 17 passenger and air cargo airports; all seven of the nation's Class 1 railroads; and water ports on the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

One argument in helping garner public support might be that the truck lanes would reduce wear on the car segment of the interstate-perhaps reducing costs to maintain passenger vehicles, said Andy Dietrick, an INDOT spokesman.

When the modern interstate system got its launch in the 1950s, "trucks were under 10 percent of the volume out there. Today, their numbers are closer to 30 percent," Bucklew said.
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