Pullman, Wash. The North American Free Trade Agreement is exacting a hidden toll on Washington’s highways, a new transportation study has found.
Increased truck traffic attributed to NAFTA trade may cut the useful lives of main north-south truck routes by 30 percent or more and there is no way for the state to recover a significant share of the repair costs from the people who benefit most from the use of those roads.
“We found that 70 percent of the traffic in our main corridors was not Washington traffic,” said Ken Casavant, Washington State University agricultural economist. “It was Canadian products moving to other parts of the United States or U.S. products moving to Canada from other states.”
Researchers hired members of Lions Clubs to stop and poll truckers passing 30 locations in Washington. Information was collected four times a year for 24 consecutive hours during 1993-1994. Some 30,000 truckers were interviewed.
I-5 in western Washington, U.S. 97 in central Washington and U.S. 395 in eastern Washington were the routes most heavily affected by international truck traffic, the survey found.
“Our studies showed NAFTA will increase our traffic 30 percent over the next eight years,” Casavant said. “That would mean we would need to make massive investments in our roads much sooner to keep the transportation system operating satisfactorily.
“When you build highways, you plan on them wearing out,” Casavant said, “but when you increase the traffic, they deteriorate faster and we end up investing in them sooner.”
He said most highways are built expecting that asphalt surfaces will have to be rebuilt in 12 to 15 years. Increased traffic will wear them out four to six years sooner.
“A legally loaded 18-wheeler hauling an 80,000 pound load causes as much road damage as 9,600 automobiles,” Casavant said.
As part of the same study, researchers compared Canadian and U.S. trucks.
“We found that Canadian trucks are running heavier and are empty less often than other trucks operating on our roads, particularly in eastern Washington,” Casavant said.
“This isn’t illegal trade. These are normal trucks providing the lifeline of trade to the states.”
Over time the weight compresses the asphalt and substructure and the roads can develop ruts. The surface also begins to crumble. Where water collects in the subsurface and freezes, roads develop a bumpy surface described as alligatoring.
Gas taxes don’t come close to recovering the cost, the economist said. “If they buy gas in the state, which they don’t have to because in some cases it’s only 250 miles or less across, one tank does not compensate for the wear and tear.”
Casavant suspects that Canadian roads bordering Washington are also affected by increased truck traffic, possibly even more so because of higher load limits permitted in Canada. He is concerned these higher limits may soon be permitted on U.S. roads.
“As part of NAFTA, they’re trying to work out what weight is going to be allowed in both coutries,” Casavant said. “If they start allowing heavier trucks from Canada, our roads and traffic will suffer even more.”
He said truckers are allowed to haul up to 125,000 pounds in Canada. That’s 20,000 pounds more than is permitted with overload permits in the United States.
U.S. exports to Canada attributable to NAFTA increased 4.4 percent in 1994, the first year of the agreement. Canadian imports to the United States rose 13.2 percent. Last year the respective increases were 4.3 percent and 6.3 percent above pre-NAFTA international trade.
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