Inside the true costs of congestion

Miami traffic jam

New York, Chicago, Miami among the worst areas for congestion-related costs

Earlier this week, the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) released its Cost of Congestion to the Trucking Industry 2017 Update. ATRI first completed a congestion report in 2014, using data from the U.S. Interstate Highway System from 2012 and 2013. Since then, the organization updated the report in 2016 using 2014 data and again this year with 2015 data.

The cost of congestion each year is staggering. In 2015, the trucking industry experienced over 996 million hours of delay because of congestion, which is equivalent to 362,243 commercial truck drivers sitting idle for an entire working year. ATRI determined the cost to be $63.4 billion, or $63.70 operational cost per hour for trucking.

Significantly, the cost per truck (based on 11.2 million registered large trucks in the U.S.), rose from $4,546 in 2014 to $5,664 in 2015. For a truck traveling 150,000 miles in a year, the costs rose as high as $34,000.

“Congestion-related costs continue to rise and impact our supply chains. A five minute delay for each UPS vehicle, every day, costs UPS $105 million annually in additional operating costs. ATRI's report quantifies this drain on the economy which must be addressed through targeted infrastructure investments,” said Rich McArdle, president of UPS Freight.


The ATRI study noted how traffic congestion can also be due to construction projects. American Trucking Association president Chris Spear, in an op-ed for Real Clear Policy, noted the connection.

“If President Trump and Congress want to get the greatest bang for their buck, they should focus on fixing the these bottlenecks, which are choking transportation efficiency and productivity, while providing additional revenue to maintain the entire system at acceptable levels,” Spear wrote. “A focused effort on fixing bottlenecks will yield optimal return. A reliable and uncongested highway system is a strategic asset, whereas a poorly maintained system is a strategic liability that will hold back any progress made through tax or regulatory reform.

Traffic congestion tended to be most severe in urban areas, ATRI said, with 88% of the congestion costs concentrated on only 17% of the network mileage. On a per-truck basis, the cost of congestion increased $22,676 for trucks that travel 100,000 miles annually.

In a year-over-year analysis, February 2015 saw the greatest change in congestion costs, rising nearly 65% from February 2014. July 2015 saw a slight decline over July 2014 – the only month to do so.

On a national basis, the East Coast saw the greatest congestion followed by the Midwest. New York, Chicago and Miami saw the greatest congestion.

The cost of congestion varies by state. Florida and Texas, the top two states in terms of congestion, each totaled over $5 billion in congestion costs and accounted for 16.5% of the national congestion cost. ATRI said that 8 of the top 10 state for congestion were the same as in 2014.

“Spreading the total congestion cost figure across the entirety of the NHS network shows the average cost on any given mile of the NHS,” ATRI said. “This resulted in an average industry cost per mile of $129,919, a 16.4% increase from the $111,578 per mile found in 2014. In a similar trend, relatively few NHS segments met or exceeded this national average, which again suggests that congestion was concentrated on a comparatively small portion of the network.”

Missouri saw a 27.1% decline in congestion costs and Mississippi a 26.6% decline. Conversely, Ohio posted a 171.3% increase in costs and New York a 55% increase.

To illustrate how outside factors can influence the totals, Utah posted the largest per-mile increase of 76%, however, ATRI notes that 13 of the top 15 state construction projects in Utah in 2015 occurred on NHS roadways. 

While total congestion costs reached $63.4 billion in 2015, 91% of those costs occurred in metropolitan areas. The New York-Newark-Jersey City (NY-NJ-PA) area remained the highest with $4.6 billion in congestion costs.

Areas with fewer miles of NHS roadways, though, can see a more significant impact from congestion. The Ogden-Clearfield, UT, area, with 619 NHS miles, saw a cost per mile of $914,879 with Arkadelphia, AR, second at $887,749. Arkadelphia has just 83 NHS miles. Conversely, the NY-NJ-PA area, with 7,299 NHS miles, has a cost per mile of only $630,003, seventh on the list.

ATRI also studied counties, with Cook, IL, recording the highest cost of congestion at $1 billion. On a per-mile basis, New York was the highest cost at $2.6 million. In fact, New York counties held the top four spots.

Going further inside the data, though, finds that county congestion costs are greatly influenced by metropolitan areas.

“For example, 89.5% of the congestion cost increase seen in the 10-county Columbus, OH metropolitan area occurred in Franklin County, OH,” ATRI notes. “This county completely encompasses the downtown Columbus area revealing how congestion is concentrated in one region of the metropolitan area. This level of analysis can also highlight the impact of roadway projects in non-metropolitan areas. For example, the increase seen in Worchester County, Massachusetts is likely the result of the I-290/Belmont Street Bridge Project which commenced construction in 2015.”

Even local roads are not immune to congestion. While data on local roads is not as extensive as the NHS network, ATRI did not a few locals where data was available. The total cost of congestion on these roads was estimated at $50.7 billion in 2015, a 54.5% increase over 2014.

“In 2015, this network experienced 797 million hours of delay (above and beyond the NHS congestion calculation of 996 million) – a 65.2% increase from the 483 million found in 2014,” ATRI says. “This is equivalent to 289,688 commercial drivers sitting idle for a work year on these roads.”