UPS ‘Feeder Drivers’ Make Holidays Possible But Clogged American Infrastructure Creates Ongoing Problems

The Ups & Downs of Infrastructure 

Roads, bridges, rail, airports and ports are among the anchors of our nation and economy. Without each properly maintained, modernized and invested in, our transportation system is slower, less safe and not as efficient.

Infrastructure was a prominent issue in the 2016 presidential election and it polls high among Americans, but neither the White House or Congress has passed new infrastructure investment legislation. Also, neither has addressed the depleting Highway Trust Fund (funded from a tax on motor fuels last increased in 1993) or prioritized a comprehensive blueprint to determine how America’s infrastructure will be paid for, expanded and updated.

Especially for businesses hauling goods, mobility and the longevity of infrastructure are climacteric issues. The drivers Marshall supervises are moving trailers (known as UPS sets, which are two small trailers coupled together) that weigh upwards of 80,000 pounds, and carry about 65,000 pounds of freight.

Marshall’s drivers are encountering increased delays in main corridors and reconstruction zones (and in the era of smartphones) where accidents involving other motorists who are not paying attention are more frequent. He also observes that short-range infrastructure fixes have likely become the norm in more recent years.

“Because we’ve gotten used to the traffic increasing, we’ve had to adjust schedules and start times so these drivers are actually working longer hours than they were before to do the same amount of work,” explains Marshall. “If you look at the schedules my drivers are actually running about 45 minutes more per day due to congestion. We’ve seen the delays increase over the last few years, and it’s happening in a lot of these metro areas, where we’re talking about congestion, such as Minneapolis-St. Paul, Milwaukee and certainly down to Chicago.”

He adds, “Infrastructure absolutely is at a critical point in America because the concern has always been with a lot of these construction projects, ‘Are we building and reconstructing these areas to handle what’s happening now or are we having the foresight to take a look at what’s going to be happening tomorrow and years down the road?’ The concern I have for officials is, ‘Yes, you are redoing the road but are you really enhancing lanes, are you widening lanes, are you adding lanes?’ That’s what I see that is not happening as much as I would have hoped. It’s a lot of, the road’s not in good condition so let’s redo the part of the road that’s already there.”

Marshall’s group of drivers have next-generation handheld devices that provide information, schedules (including changes that may come up), messaging and alert systems to facilitate efficient communications and work days.

But there are growing variables beyond the company’s control that have to be addressed because of the amount of crashes, congestion and delays on our national highway system now. Larger populations and more freight moving, coupled with worsening infrastructure, are producing a tipping point.

Data show that the demand on the interstate system — with the increase of goods moving up and down it — is going to grow exponentially over the next several years, Marshall adds.

Information from TRIP confirms this. “The amount of freight transported in the U.S. is expected to increase significantly as a result of further economic growth, changing business and retail models, advances in manufacturing, warehousing and supply-chain automation, increasing international trade, and rapidly changing consumer expectations that place an emphasis on faster deliveries,” says Rocky Moretti, Director of Policy & Research for TRIP. “Each year, the U.S. freight system moves approximately 17.7 billion tons of freight, valued at $16.8 trillion. Trucks carried 72 percent of freight by value in 2016 and 66 percent by weight.”

Marshall notes some of the route constants now: old narrow roads in outlying (called extended) areas that in wintry weather make conditions dangerous; Wisconsin areas where even slight rain events lead to flooding and delays; crashes and ongoing reconstruction in main corridors and on highway systems, with the latter resulting in unprecedented and significant delays from Milwaukee to Chicago.

He says chokepoints on I-94, specifically in the region that runs from the south side of Milwaukee at Oak Creek up to the north side and past the Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport (MKE), have led to heavy gridlock in the past seven years. Marshall mentions, too, that the Zoo Interchange freeway project, underway for years, didn’t remedy daily congestion.

Thus, infrastructure shortcomings in America require UPS, in the short-term, to rearrange drivers, schedules, pickups and routes at critical moments every day. In the long-term, it prioritizes having good relationships with its customers, continually examining and improving its supply chain to address how to move goods safely and quickly.

To address the speed at which commerce and interfacing now happen and shipped goods get to customers, for instance, UPS is planning on expanding its longer-haul sleeper-driver network through which members of a tandem team split time driving and sleeping, so freight can get to California, from Minnesota and Wisconsin, in a day and a half, instead of the four days it takes via rail. However, this will put more strain on roads and bridges.

Marshall wonders about the investment D.C. is making in infrastructure and in the Midwest. “Think about what you’re losing on the back end by not investing early on the front end,“ he says. “Are we building out enough for what this country is going to need down the road?”

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Read part two of this two-part series.

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