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Inward Investment Guides

Highway Access 101

Although highway accessibility is consistently ranked at or near the top of the site selection factors, other factors may cause a company to opt for a site near a road less traveled.

Will O’Shea, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer, XPO Last Mile (Aug/Sep 09)
Regardless of your political leanings, you've got to like Ike, the president who was visionary enough to recognize the importance of creating a more efficient U.S. road system. Today, his brainchild - more than 45,000 miles of interstate - handles a whopping 25 percent of the nation's total vehicle miles and as much as 50 percent of its commercial trucking miles.

And it's easy to see why. Studies show that interstate travel is usually faster, safer, and more productive than traveling via other roads, and almost every U.S. industry has prospered from having this massive infrastructure in place.



No one understands these benefits better than Area Development readers, who have ranked access to interstates and other highways among the top two site selection criteria for the last five years in a row - and, in fact, they ranked this factor first in 2007 and 2008. And those of us who work in logistics could not be more pleased.

This high ranking acknowledges what we've known for years: Over-the-road transportation efficiency (or the lack thereof) is inextricably linked with everything from corporate profitability and sustainability to employees' quality of life - and even though it's possible to thrive in a more remote location with little access to highways, it's definitely more of a "roadblock."

The question is what does the term "highway access" truly mean? More important, in a country where the farthest you can be from a paved road is 22 miles (even in wild places like Yellowstone), and where most cities or towns are just a stone's throw from major roadways, what other qualities besides the mere existence of infrastructure should companies be looking for?


A Vast Network
For starters, if you consider the word highway to be synonymous with interstate, you've missed the point - or more accurately, two-thirds of it. The Eisenhower interstate covers just a third of our country's official National Highway System, a network of roads that spans 160,000 miles and provides many vital connections between roadways, ports, airports, and intermodal facilities.

Like the interstates, some of these other roads feature high speeds, multiple lanes, and an absence of traffic lights. As a result, some of them can be just as viable as an interstate from a freight transportation or business commuting perspective. In fact, according to the Office of Highway Policy Information, three out of the country's 10 most traveled sections in the highway system are actually highways rather than interstates.

You're also putting your head in the sand if you define highway access only in terms of route miles - the length of a roadway - instead of lane miles - the length multiplied by the available lanes. To put this distinction into perspective, consider this: Our country has about 48,000 route miles of interstate but close to 211,000 lane miles, and these lane miles are anything but evenly dispersed. Some portions of Alaska's interstates, for example, have just two lanes, while some stretches of interstate in larger metropolitan areas such as Houston have as many as 18 plus service roads. While a metro area with a higher amount of lane miles doesn't automatically offer a greater degree of transportation efficiency (think Los Angeles/Long Beach or New York City/Northern New Jersey at rush hour), lane miles do need to be taken into consideration.

Finally - and perhaps most important of all - you're headed for potential trouble if you automatically assume that highways and interstates are an ironclad guarantee of smooth traffic flow. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 45 percent of the country's major urban highways are congested. At its mildest, this congestion can cause frustration and inconvenience. At its worst, it can affect everything from your employees' stress level (after all, who truly enjoys a two-hour daily commute?) to your products' final delivered cost - in a really big way.

The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that congestion costs the U.S. economy $78 billion each year, including 4.2 billion lost hours and 2.9 billion gallons of fuel. And the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) estimates that congestion may increase trucking costs by anywhere from 20 percent to 250 percent per hour, and yes, you read that second figure correctly.

In other words, it's quite possible for your company to choose a location that's smack dab in the middle of many highway routes only to find that you've placed your employees and cargo transportation in a literal jam.

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