A photograph of traffic backed up on Interstate 79 published Wednesday in the Washington County edition of the Observer-Reporter Wednesday contained an unintended message. The purpose of the picture was to illustrate the effect of pothole-patching on the highway: miles of motionless vehicles at the junction with Interstates 70 and 79 just north of Washington. Startling, however, was the fact that almost all of those vehicles in the photo were commercial trucks, and almost all of them tractor-trailers.
For those who frequently travel on the interstate highways in this area, this photo is tangible evidence to support the suspicion that the amount of traffic – particularly heavy truck traffic – has increased greatly in recent years.
When these highways were being built more than half a century ago, most freight in the United States moved by rail.
The new roads were designed primarily for passenger vehicles, and the interchanges and ramps were safe and more than sufficient for the amount of traffic expected to use them. But since then, the nation has nearly doubled in population, and there are about 248 million cars and light trucks now on U.S. roads.
Today, 70 percent of freight is carried by truck. The estimated 3 million semis hauling freight cause much wear and tear to highways, and all of the increased traffic has necessitated the costly and seemingly constant reconstruction of the interstates.
No doubt, shipping freight by rail is more efficient than hauling it by truck. The Association of American Railroads estimates that on average, a freight train can move one ton of freight about 484 miles on just one gallon of fuel. That has improved much since 1980, when that same ton of freight could move only 235 miles on a gallon of fuel.
Trucks, on the other hand, have not done so well at improving fuel economy. Tractor-trailers, on average, traveled 5.6 miles per gallon in 1973 and get only a little better – 6.5 miles per gallon – today.
Problem is, there are many fewer miles of track now than there were 50 or even 100 years ago. Trains are excellent conveyors of freight between major cities, but trucks are necessary to carry goods from those cities to their destinations. The railroad can haul Subarus from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh, but it can’t get them from there to a car dealership in Waynesburg.
That photo of truck traffic illustrates another problem we face here: the noxious gases emitted from every one of those tailpipes. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, diesel exhaust contains a wide mix of pollutants, including soot particles, metals, smog-forming gases, carcinogens and many other toxic and hazardous chemicals.
So, the heavy and constant truck traffic we are experiencing at this important crossroads of interstate highways is a serious threat to our health and quality of life.
Our politicians and those in government should not be thinking only of how to improve and maintain our highways in order to handle more and more traffic, but to be working on ways to reduce the traffic and thus reduce the need for those improvements. Moving people and freight more efficiently should be an integral part of a national energy policy, which we do not have.
Nor will we, with the current crop of representatives we’ve voted into office.
Get used to crowded highways.