WSU transportation economists analyze movement of trucks and commodities in and through Washington


Creeping in convoys up the I-90 grade west of Vantage, their running lights flashing as you jockey to pass them, or looming up in your rearview mirror as they bear down behind you on I-5, trucks are an inescapable fact of life on Washington’s highways. The next time you find yourself boxed in between a double-decker you’re passing and another one pounding along a few car-lengths ahead of you, try to remember that although you can’t avoid them out there on the freeway, you can’t live without them, either.

As Ken Casavant, longtime Washington State University professor of agricultural and resource economics, says, “Everything we eat, touch, or wear has been handled by truck.”

Washington commodities-apples, wheat, meat and dairy products, timber, ore-are almost totally dependent on truck movement. World communities too depend on trucks for the transportation of goods into, out of, and through Washington. Inadequacies in the state’s transportation infrastructure can cause markets-and revenue-to be lost.

That’s why gathering comprehensive data on the movement of goods in Washington is so vital to state residents and our economy, Casavant says.

Growing up on a North Dakota farm, Casavant developed an early interest in transportation economics. Analyzing the cost and movement of commodities-often over long distances by road, rail, and barge-still fascinates him. The Washington transportation data he and his team of researchers have collected have made WSU nationally recognized in the field of transportation economics. But it is his analysis of these data that has affected policy in the state.

Casavant has been at the forefront of a pair of six-year studies for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). The first was the Eastern Washington Intermodal Transportation Study (EWITS), conducted from 1992 to 1998. The Strategic Freight Transportation Analysis (SFTA) is currently in progress and will run through 2008. This successful research program now is focused on creating a WSU Regional Center for Freight Mobility.

While conducting truck studies for a master’s degree at North Dakota State University in the late 1960s, Casavant frequently drew on the work of WSU professor James C. Nelson, considered by many as “the father of transportation economics” in the United States. Under Nelson’s tutelage, Casavant (’70 Ph.D. Ag. Econ.) gained a greater appreciation of the value of competition in increasing productivity and efficiency in the transportation sector.

“Early on Dr. Nelson was the leading voice crying out for competition as the regulator of a free-market system,” Casavant says. “His writings and the policies espoused by him form the foundation of current regulatory philosophy in the U.S. and world.”

Casavant credits Nelson for helping him focus his analytical work on how the competitive market can be made to work better. Then, if market failures occur, state investment and regulation may be appropriate, he says.

Before the early 1990s no comprehensive information existed on where and how commodities and products moved in eastern Washington. This omission caught Tom Foley’s attention. The longtime U.S. congressman from Spokane called for the EWITS study in 1991 to identify regional transportation needs, enable policy changes, and provide added funding. The same year Casavant and Jerry Lenzi, WSDOT’s eastern Washington regional administrator in Spokane, drafted a “scope of work” plan for the study. Congress approved $800,000. The state legislature added $200,000. Lenzi chaired the steering committee.

EWITS was conducted through the state Transportation Research Center, an interagency agreement involving WSU, the University of Washington, and WSDOT. One critical aspect of WSU’s research focused on the origins and destinations of commodities being transported in eastern Washington, the weight, size, and configurations of trucks used, and the infrastructure investment required to support an efficient multimodal system. The movement of commodities by rail and barge also was examined.

Findings from the study have allowed the WSDOT, cities, and counties to prioritize investments in the state’s transportation infrastructure.

EWITS had four broad objectives:

  • Forecast future freight and passenger transportation service needs for eastern Washington.
  • Identify gaps in eastern Washington’s current transportation infrastructure.
  • Pinpoint transportation improvement options critical to economic competitiveness and mobility within eastern Washington.
  • Facilitate existing regional and statewide transportation planning efforts.
Pressures on Washington highways

Washington is a bridge state, providing access to other states and Canada and serving as a gateway to key overseas markets. Eighty-five to 90 percent of the state’s wheat is shipped abroad. Sixty percent is moved to ports and barges by truck.

Passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s relaxed trade restrictions for both the U.S and Canada. One result was an increased demand on Washington roads. EWITS data shows that 70 percent of the ton-miles-the number of tons moved times the number of miles traveled-in some highway corridors entering or leaving Canada passed through Washington without an origin or destination in the state.

“Infrastructure becomes an issue when Canadian trucks are, on average, heavier than U.S. trucks, running up to 105,000 pounds,” Lenzi says. While not illegally loaded, they weigh more than U.S. trucks, and therefore cause a need for increased maintenance and reconstruction of roads, highways, and bridges. Eighty-one percent of the Canadian trucks in the EWITS study were full. This compares to 70 percent for U.S. trucks.

Freeze-thaw cycles and seasonal weight restrictions on 250 miles of deteriorating eastern Washington roads were also reasons for concern. WSDOT estimated in 1994 that more than $180 million would be needed to bring state roads up to required capacity and condition by 2005.

Rail also figures in the state’s transportation equation. From 1970 to 1998 nearly 2,000 miles of state railroad lines, including 66 percent of eastern Washington’s, were abandoned. As a result, movement of those goods shifted to roads. Barge transportation is another option. It is the most cost-efficient means of moving goods. However, the potential drawdown of water on the lower Snake River threatens the availability of the river system.

“A drawdown would likely increase road deterioration over $2 million annually in eastern Washington,” Casavant says. State Routes 12, 17, 26, 260, and 395 would bear the brunt of the added load. “The cost changes are due to the complexities of the marketing system, including availability of rail cars, possible rail- and truck-rate increases due to loss of competition from barge companies, or a combination of these factors.”

Truck transportation on Washington’s three major north-south highways-the I-5, State Route 395, and SR 397 corridors, as well as the east-west I-90 corridor-has been at the heart of EWITS and SFTA. Both studies emphasize the importance of connectivity between eastern and western Washington in transporting general freight and such commodities as fruit, hay, grain, vegetables, and forest products.

Traffic congestion data reveal pockets where freight traffic from eastern Washington and passenger and commuter traffic on the west side compete for highway space. WSDOT officials say one heavily loaded 18-wheel truck with trailer can cause the same highway damage as 7,000 cars. Such rigs require the same amount of road space as seven cars.

Predicted population growth along the I-5 corridor from Blaine south to Vancouver will increase truck, passenger, and transit traffic on that route. Spokane and the Tri-Cities areas are also growing, foretelling heavier truck traffi
c along SR 395 between Pasco and the Canadian border. And as the wine, fresh fruit, and vegetable industries in the Walla Walla and Tri-Cities areas grow, so will their dependence on truck transportation.

Going to the source

Collecting data on specific freight movements and commodities by truck presents different degrees of difficulty. Eric Jessup (’98 Ph.D. Ag. Econ.), an assistant professor in the School of Economic Sciences, who left American Express to return to WSU, participated in the effort and oversaw the logistics of both the EWITS and SFTA surveys. The best information with the tightest, most specific detail is collected from the truck drivers themselves, he says. WSU researchers opted for the “stop ’em and ask ’em” survey method, even though it is the most expensive and labor-intensive.

In the first statewide survey (EWITS, 1993), 28,000 truck drivers were interviewed at 28 separate locations, usually weigh stations. More than 300 members of local Lions Clubs throughout the state conducted the interviews in teams of about 10. The Lions were recruited, trained, and paid to conduct the interviews. Washington State Patrol troopers spelled out safety precautions, as did U.S. and Canadian customs officials at the international border crossings.

Questionnaires were designed to be completed in three minutes or less. Truck drivers participated voluntarily. A few answers could be determined by the interviewer via direct observation, such as the configuration of the rig and the number of axles. Questions asked directly of truck drivers focused on cargo, weight, use of intermodal facilities, and route of travel, including origin and destination.

The interviews developed data for each of the four seasons. They were scheduled for a continuous 24-hour period to provide a comprehensive picture of statewide movements. Interviews were consistently conducted on Wednesdays to obtain median traffic patterns, rather than during exceptionally heavy Monday or Friday traffic flows.

For the most part, the truckers were receptive, Jessup says. “Truckers have their own communications network. If they felt they were detained too long, they could get on their CBs and notify other truckers behind them. We kept them moving. Most of them answered the questions, and said, ‘Is that all you need?’ and they were gone.”

Data collected in King County alone in 1998 showed over four days’ time-one day for each season-a total of 50,799 trucks, both loaded and empty, entered or left the county. Of those trucks, 64 percent were Washington-based carriers. Additionally, the volume of traffic entering or leaving the county ranged from 17,823 trucks per day in winter to 14,323 per day in spring.

“Having good, up-to-date data assists the WSDOT and users of the state highway system to make future investment decisions,” says Mark Rohwer, eastern Washington regional planning manager of the WSDOT. “These decisions may be for improvements on the WSDOT side for pavement repairs, safety improvements, or capacity improvements. Decisions on the private side may be for economics-based investments, such as providing services.”

In an EWITS report, WSU researcher William R. Gillis wrote, “Highway capacity improvement, including additional turnouts, passing lanes, or four-laning, should be considered for future developments of the U.S. corridor north of Spokane.”

WSDOT is constructing portions of a 10.5-mile freeway that will link I-90 just east of downtown Spokane with existing US 395 just north of the city. “While not used directly in the environmental impact statement process, some of the EWITS data has been used in several of the ongoing studies for portions of the US 395/North Spokane corridor project,” says WSDOT spokesman Al Gilson.

While valuable, the EWITS study provided only a “snapshot of time,” Lenzi says. As the original data became obsolete, the need for updating information to guide policy makers, investors, and the WSDOT became more evident. Nevertheless, the EWITS study generated 39 analytical reports and working papers and more than 40 presentations and invited talks. The reports contributed to infrastructure investment projects, including the stretch of highway from Deer Park to Kettle Falls.

Further, information collected by the EWITS study, combined with data from the U.S. Census Bureau on cross-border trade in commodities transported through ports of entry along the Washington-British Columbia border, will allow Casavant and his team to make projections about future commodity flows resulting from NAFTA, he says.

The methodology used in the original study has been adopted in Oregon, Texas, and Japan transportation studies. It also provided a foundation for additional funding for the on-going $2 million SFTA analysis, Casavant says.

Funding is always an issue. According to Rohwer, we need to preserve what we have, along with making the necessary safety and capacity improvements. “There is never enough money to do everything, so projects need to be prioritized and investment decisions made.”

“We are facing some serious transportation and economic growth decisions that are intricately linked: congestion and growth needs and increased demand on roads, rail, and water,” Jessup says. “We could blindly patch highways, rail lines, or ports in a random manner, or we could be strategic in how we allocate dwindling resources. Without these data (EWITS and SFTA), we are stuck with the problem. With this information we can obtain the solution.”

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Gallery: Truck Drivin’ Man  (Photos by Rajah Bose)