Delayed in the USA

Infrastructure woes aren't just a Third-World problem, they also pose a major "last-mile" headache for American businesses from coast to coast.

Other businesses have started sharing sales data with carriers. The idea? To line up trucks as early as possible. Procter & Gamble not only discloses figures for actual customer demand, but also short-term forecasts for expected demand. Joe Duckworth, North American physical distribution purchasing group manager for the consumer-goods giant, adds that the company is also looking at providing longer-term forecasts to its carriers.

Carriers, too, have concocted some inventive ways to speed up delivery. Some have begun to embrace team driving — that is, hiring two drivers to operate a single rig. The approach can cut delivery time from five days to two.

Still, truck operators have to be careful not to go too far. In 2005, concerns about the growing number of truck-related accidents led the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to alter rules governing shift lengths. Those changes have improved safety but hampered delivery. Notes Duckworth: “The hours-of-service legislation has affected the productivity of drivers.”

When you can find drivers, that is. With trucking companies doggedly holding down wages, many younger drivers have opted out. Currently, the average age of a truck driver in the United States is 52. It’s not overly surprising, then, that the American Trucking Association believes there will be a shortfall of 100,000 drivers in five years. If the economy rebounds — particularly the construction industry — the shortage could get even worse, predicts C. John Langley, professor of supply-chain management at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “When the economy is good,” explains Langley, “it’s tough to interest people in becoming truck drivers.”

Mediocre Grades
2005 report card for America’s infrastructure
Aviation D+
Bridges C
Navigable Waterways D-
Rail C-
Roads D
Transit D+
Source: American Society of Civil Engineers

Slow Boat from China

It’s understandable. Driving a truck involves a lot of time spent far from home. It also involves a lot of time spent going nowhere. A study found that truck drivers in the United States lost more than 234 million hours in 2004 to road delays and bottlenecks. Not surprisingly, DoT officials have targeted roadway congestion in their strategic initiative. Among other things, the blueprint calls for large-scale deployment of operational technologies to ease traffic jams. It also champions tolls to discourage peak-hour driving.

Backers say such schemes can extract much-needed capacity from existing networks. Critics say the directive relies too heavily on private funding for capital improvements. Similar complaints were leveled at last year’s congressional transportation bill, which authorized $286 billion in infrastructure spending through 2010. “When you take inflation into account, [the appropriation] in the new transportation bill is not that much money,” says Ali Maher, chair of the civil and environmental engineering department at Rutgers University. “It will barely pay for maintaining and upgrading existing systems.”

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