A colleague recently related the travails of returning from a short vacation in Maine and encountering hours-long delays at tollbooths in that state and in New Hampshire. That's not all that unusual at the end of a summer weekend in New England or at vacation hot spots around the nation. Most of the vehicles clogging the roads are automobiles, but there are plenty of 18-wheelers in the mix as well, even on the weekends.
What congestion on highways, at ports and on the rails costs our economy is hard to measure. How do you calculate the price of lost time, wasted fuel, air pollution caused by those idling vehicles, delayed shipments—not to mention frustration and frayed tempers? But it is certainly expensive, and by all accounts, it is only going to get worse. It's hard to imagine how we can build enough transportation infrastructure to meet current demand, never mind to accommodate the expected growth.
Much of the economic damage created by congestion is largely invisible to those vacationers massed together at the tollbooths. Few are likely to consider just how much congestion-related costs (wasted fuel, added inventory expenses) push up the price of their sunblock, beach chair or bathing suit. And I'm not sure even those in the business could say with any certainty how many pennies logistics uncertainty adds to the cost of any item. But we know it does. It was never clearer than during the peak shipping season of 2004, when ports and railroads were overwhelmed, and retailers were rightly frightened that goods would not arrive in time for Christmas. In fact, many did not.
The good news is that it seems the nation's ports, railroads, truckers, and shippers have all taken the necessary steps to assure a relatively smooth peak shipping season this year. As we report in our Newsworthy section, a monthly study of activity at key ports indicates that despite record growth in imports, we will not face the overwhelming congestion that created near chaotic conditions in 2004.
It is clear by now to just about everyone who watches this business that this is a mere reprieve. Paul Bingham, the economist at the research firm Global Insight who prepares the monthly port survey, cautions that many of the tactics that have helped, such as extending port and DC operating hours, can only go so far. You can't add an eighth day to the week or a twenty-fifth hour to the day. It just seems that way sometimes, waiting for the traffic to clear.