GAO: Trucking the Least Efficient Mode of Freight Shipping

Freight transportation, which accounts for nearly a quarter of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, doesn’t get as much attention as passenger transportation because most people don’t feel it affects them as much. But more than 15 million trucks deliver 70 percent of the goods this country consumes – and the GAO says that’s a mistake.

Safety is one of many externalized costs of freight trucking. Photo: ## Accidents 360 Newswire##

The Government Accountability Office published a study finding that the costs of freight trucking that are not passed on to the consumer are at least six times greater than the equivalent rail costs and at least nine times greater than the equivalent waterways costs. Many of those are externalized costs passed on to society – like congestion, pollution, and crashes – as well as public costs, like infrastructure maintenance.

These externalized and public costs are just another way that taxpayers subsidize highways. The GAO implies that the country’s highway-centric transportation policy could be damaging the economy.

“When prices do not reflect all these costs, one mode may have a cost advantage over the others that distorts competition,” writes the GAO. “As a consequence, the nation could devote more resources than needed to higher cost freight modes, an inefficient outcome that lowers economic well-being.”

The report goes on to say, “If government policy gives one mode a cost advantage over another, by, for example, not recouping all the costs of that mode’s use of infrastructure, then shipping prices and customers’ use of freight modes can be distorted, reducing the overall efficiency of the nation’s economy.”

The GAO didn’t make recommendations in this report but did say that policy changes that make prices align with the true costs of freight shipping would provide a great economic benefit. Less targeted changes, like charging user fees, subsidizing more efficient alternatives, or applying safety or emissions regulations – could be helpful as well. The report acknowledges that “the current configuration of transportation infrastructure can limit the shifting of freight among modes.”

After all, we’ve been building a lot more highways than railroads lately.

  • Alai

    Raise the gas tax, raise the gas tax, raise the gas tax.

  • Madeline

    Agree! Raise the gas tax, tolls, and everything else related to single-occupancy vehicles (including freight). Such an obvious, easy solution to our economic/environmental difficulties.

  • jwb

    It’s disingenuous to claim that barge transportation is massively efficient, because it serves only the tiny portion of the nation that lies along navigable waterways. A truck can deliver your goods to Markleeville and a barge cannot. Of course, whether the residents of Markleeville should pay the premium for living in such a crazy place is another matter.

  • ZA

    Sharing roads with freight trucks is like setting up your living room in a steel mill. I think we can negotiate something better.

  • ZA

    @jwb – you are positing an ‘out of scope’ criterion. It’s like saying airplanes are inefficient because they don’t deliver pizza to your house.

    For the people served, for the costs and risks of that method, waterways are very efficient. Far fewer fuel emissions, some risk of injury, spill, and accident – with a public & private insurance system to cover these risks.


    To your point though, actually a lot of the country *can* be served by barge much of the year, thanks to the massive Mississippi system, and coastal ports. There’d still be a role for trucks for ‘last mile’ deliveries, which should have more refreshed drivers than our transcontinental hauliers.

    Under the right flow conditions, you could go send cargo from as far west as Great Falls, MT to as far east as Pittsburgh, PA. OR, if you want to off-load at Davenport, and haul the cargo overland to Lake Michigan, you eventually have the St. Lawrence Seaway and the whole world.

    What’s missing are inland lock and port upgrades to handle international containers on barges.

    For arid America, the train may work a whole lot better.

  • LazyReader

    Fortunatley, The United States makes extensive use of its rail system for “freight” and it’s major rivers on barges. American freight railroads are the busiest on earth, moving more freight than any rail system in any other country moving more than four times as much freight than all of Western Europe’s freight railroads put together. We move over 40 percent of our freight using trains. In Europe they barely move over 15 percent because the passenger rail systems are so extensive they hog the rail with little opportunity to move freight at all. Trains are useful when your moving goods and food thousands of miles or maybe a couple of hundred miles, but using a truck to move some stuff from a distribution center to a supermarket that’s only less than a hundred miles away isn’t all bad, thats how WHOLE FOODS gets their stuff, especially if the truck it filled to capacity.

    A lot of the cost of consumer goods is not the stuff itself, but the cost of getting it to you. To use a truck to move tons of goods can be efficient to customers.

    Local food can guzzle more fuel than shipped food. The logic seems to be obvious, right?. It takes more energy to transport food over long distances than over short ones. However not on a per capita basis. If you have ever been to a farmer’s market (that take place in unused parking lots often near huge shopping centers) and have seen the fleets of Land Rovers and sleek Volvo’s and Prius’s heading home with their cargo they bought that week that can probably fit in the glove box alone. They prey on the niche market. Inefficient gas guzzling lies at the very heart of the local food model defeating the purpose of local food. Local food currently uses much more fossil fuel, especially in distribution, on a per pound basis for farmers bringing it to you. We don’t need “food miles” we need “pounds moved per gallon of fuel” or pound-gallons.

  • Fortunately, there are market-based solutions to this problem. Raise the diesel fuel tax and gas tax, to pay for the cost of trucking, and start charging trucks tolls for using the federal highways.

    There are already weight stations along every major highway; these could easily have toll stations attached, using modern electronic transponders.

    The freight railroads have suffered for years from the need to pay for their own right-of-way acquisition, construction costs, and maintenance, plus property tax on their lines. The next federal transportation bill should provide funding for freight railroads to upgrade their tracks, with the requirement that passenger trains be allowed to have reliable slots in the schedule in the future (instead of the current system, where Amtrak trains get put on sidings while freight goes thru).

    Some support for water-based freight might be helpful; perhaps rebuilding some canals and locks? Europe moves a huge amount of heavy freight by waterway, which is even more efficient than rail.

    If the subsidy for roads, and the effective tax rate on freight rail, are reduced, the market will eventually figure things out.

  • ZA

    @LazyReader – “local food” certainly has its shortcomings, but I don’t think you can categorically throw it out either. The question is how large a niche it can fill, how much resiliency that buys you, and how that compares with the alternatives.

    For example: the SF Bay Area enjoys a high-quality regional composting system that feeds high-value crops (fruit, nuts, herbs, some cereals) that lead to premium-paying exports (wine) and local foods consumed. It’s not worth destroying these economies for ‘specialization’ and create dependence on Central and South America for basic & luxury foods, however energy-efficient that may be. It’s worth keeping these regional solutions ‘in the mix.’

    As for the Landrovers at the farmer’s market – I’m happy to report that my local farmer’s market is where families go for their weekly groceries, with perhaps 10% riding the bus there, 10% walking there, and 5% biking there.

  • ZE

    Remember Shipping Out the Good Apples… Come on, Econ 101.


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