Area Development
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.

Road Quality, Congestion, and More
That's why aiming for good highway access has to be about more than just mere proximity. Among other things, it has to be about choosing good-quality highways, which is often more easily said than done. Should your company opt to locate its facility near one of our country's more poorly maintained sections of highway - which describes about one-third of our country's major roadways according to the American Society of Civil Engineers - your employees and trucking personnel could pay the price in terms of extra vehicle operating costs (approximately $400 per vehicle per year according to a recent report issued by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials). Or they could find themselves routinely facing substantial traffic delays if repairs are made somewhere down the line.

It has to be about understanding the rules of the road in each area you're considering, because approximately 20 percent of U.S. states have set a slower speed limit for trucks on their highways - a factor that could be especially significant if the location you're considering will need to accommodate a lot of truck pick-ups or deliveries.

And it has to involve a good measure of your own due diligence, because maps, local organizations, and chambers of commerce can tell you only so much about the true ebb and flow of an area's traffic.

Integrating All the Factors
Last, but certainly not least, it has to be about integration.  Few of us are lucky enough to be able to choose a site with a clean slate and no strings attached. Instead, most of us are bound by realities ranging from longstanding relationships in specific manufacturing venues to customers who need deliveries made all over the map. Maybe we're limited by budget constraints. Perhaps our hands are tied because of the kinds of facilities that are available in our areas of choice. Or maybe we've been told we have to look within a certain area because of especially strong tax incentives. Whatever the parameters, always remember that no matter how important highway access seems, no highly accessible site is truly right unless it has the ability to mesh with your business and customer service objectives - and to fit in with the corporate culture you want to have.

Plus, even though those of us who are logistics professionals would always prefer that you make things easier on your supply chains by making transportation a priority before you choose a site, the essence of our profession is finding a way to efficiently deliver the goods no matter what. We have a lot of tools and techniques at our disposal to help companies overcome a wide variety of transportation and other obstacles, and many of us thrive on the challenge of using them.

Are highways and highway access as critical as people say they are? Absolutely. But can your company survive if every other factor points to a site near a road less traveled? Quite possibly, because good logistics practices and personnel can make all the difference. 

Will O'Shea is chief sales & marketing officer for 3PD, Inc., one of North America's largest providers of large-product, last-mile logistics services. He gratefully acknowledges the use of data from the American Association Of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the American Society of Civil Engineers, the National Atlas of the United States, the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Office of Highway Policy Information, the Road Information Program, and the Texas Transportation Institute.