Tennessee scrutinizes increased truck traffic

| 9/23/2004

Tennessee transportation officials say they are concerned about a “dramatic” increase in the number of tractor-trailers traveling through the state.

As a result, officials are brainstorming for new ways to manage truck traffic on Tennessee’s 1,070 miles of interstates in the coming decades.

The state Department of Transportation contends the challenge is to move the traffic, keep it safe, and minimize truck pollution – without delaying the arrival of goods residents expect every day.

The rise in truck traffic “has been dramatic,” with tractor-trailers making up roughly 25 percent of all interstate traffic, said Kim Keelor, spokeswoman for TDOT.

“We are within about a day’s drive of half the country. We are a major ‘through corridor,’” she said.

Nationwide, freight hauled by truck has skyrocketed more than 500 percent since the 1970s, she said.

On a tonnage basis, approximately three quarters of the freight in the state, an estimated 370 million tons, travels by truck, ranking Tennessee sixth in the nation and first in the southeast for cargo ton-miles and value of commodities carried by truck.

State officials are discussing with the public ways to cope with the increased number of trucks. One idea getting close scrutiny would keep trucks in the right lanes, where possible.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, has serious concerns about restricting lane usage. He questions the safety issues of merging vehicles.

“Adopting lane restrictions would be an ill-advised step to take,” Spencer said. “Such restrictions invariably cause more problems than they fix.”

Spencer noted that in 2003, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen signed a bill into law requiring all drivers to merge into the furthest lane away from an emergency vehicle parked by the road with lights flashing.

“Most states now recognize it is in the interest of safety for cars and trucks to move out of the right lane when emergency vehicles are on the shoulder. The same is true when non-emergency vehicles are on the side of the road,” Spencer said.

“Trucks and other vehicles need to be able to move over a lane to allow traffic to enter the interstates. It’s common courtesy, but this is also about highway safety.

“When you start restricting vehicles to certain lanes you end up with more vehicles tailgating and making unsafe passing maneuvers in all lanes. This isn’t good for congestion or highway safety.”

Other options being explored to make Tennessee highways safer include new technology to alert drivers of high speeds on more dangerous curves.

To cope with congestion, Keelor said the highway agency has taken comments about expanding rail service across the state to carry more freight and ease interstate traffic.

The proposed changes could be incorporated into a long-term transportation plan covering all forms of transportation including airports, bicycle routes, walk paths, highways, bridges, ports and waterways, public transportation and railroads. TDOT officials expect to finalize the 25-year plan by next summer.

Until then, the department is in the process of meeting with the public to get suggestions for the plan.

For information on upcoming public meetings or to voice your opinion, call the Tennessee Department of Transportation toll free at 1-866-389-8443; send e-mail to plango@state.tn.us; or write to Long Range Transportation Plan, Tennessee Department of Transportation, James K. Polk Building, Suite 700, Deaderick St., Nashville, TN 37242.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor