Brookings report provides insight into the impacts of congestion on the freight industry

By Chris Spahr

A new report from the Brookings Institution, and its associated interactive tool, study the flow of freight among U.S. metropolitan areas. Findings from the report, authored by Adie Tomer and Joseph Kane, show that the 100 largest metropolitan areas transport 80 percent of all of the country’s freight. Of the $16.2 trillion in products transported, over two-thirds are carried by trucks. The same metropolitan areas on which much of the nation’s freight system depends are also home to the most congested corridors. By graphically showing freight flows within the U.S., the report makes a strong argument that congestion in large metro areas interferes with interstate commerce. Tomer and Kane use Iowa as an example when they argue that “…it is essential that federal policymakers consider how transportation problems in distant hubs like Los Angeles and New York can impact Iowa’s industries.” The report challenges policymakers to “explore strategies that better support and prioritize infrastructure investments within the nation’s freight system.”

While Tomer and Kane make a reasonable argument that policymakers must focus infrastructure investments on the most congested freight corridors, Eric Jaffe of CityLab highlights the problem too many single-occupancy vehicles (SOVs) on the road cause to interstate commerce. Citing an article by Dan Glass, Jaffe points out that while the Interstate Highway System was constructed primarily as an integrated commercial road network, commercial vehicles account for only nine percent of all highway vehicle miles traveled. Jaffe’s argument is that SOVs should be charged according to the excessive space that they occupy on the Interstate Highway System. This could provide some of the revenue needed for targeted infrastructure improvements as well as encourage commuters to seek alternative modes of transportation. Recognizing the detrimental effects of congestion to interstate commerce, not to mention other externalities, is an important step toward ensuring strategic transportation investments to ease freight movement while also improving multimodal passenger transportation.

Chris Spahr is a Graduate Assistant with SSTI.