A new study by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) said that the cost of congestion to the U.S. trucking industry – measured as wasted fuel and delay – was $23 billion last year.

While trucks only account for 6% of the miles travelled in urban areas, they represent 26% of the total cost of congestion, according to the Urban Mobility Report 2011.

Trucks are a key element in the just-in-time (or lean) manufacturing process; these business models use efficient delivery timing of components to reduce the amount of inventory warehouse space. As a consequence, trucks become a mobile warehouse and if their arrival times are missed, production lines can be stopped, at a cost of many times the value of the truck delay times, the study pointed out.

“One difference between car and truck congestion costs is important; a significant share of the $23 billion in truck congestion costs in 2010 was passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. The congestion effects extend far beyond the region where the congestion occurs,” the study said.

Steve Wagner, of the National Center for Freight and Infrastructure Research and Education, which provided funding for TTI’s freight research, noted that congestion outside of “rush hour” – which now lasts six hours in the largest urban areas – accounted for about 40% of delays.

“This is a particular problem for the movement of freight for businesses that rely on efficient production and deliveries,” he said.

The cost of truck congestion last year was slightly less than in 2009, due to the economic recession, which provided a temporary respite from the growing congestion problem. But when economic growth returns, congestion will increase significantly, the report warned.

Urban and rural corridors, ports, intermodal terminals, warehouse districts and manufacturing plants are all locations where truck congestion is a particular problem. The report suggests some possible solutions to truck congestion, including building new roads and rail lines, adding lanes on existing roads including lanes dedicated to trucks, and providing additional lanes and docking facilities at warehouses and distribution centers.

New capacity to handle freight movement might be an even larger need in coming years than passenger travel capacity.

“Goods are delivered to retail and commercial stores by trucks that are affected by congestion. But ‘upstream’ of the store shelves, many manufacturing operations use just-in-time processes that rely on the ability of trucks to maintain a reliable schedule. Traffic congestion at any time of day causes potentially costly disruptions. The solutions might be implemented in a broad scale to address freight traffic growth or targeted to road sections that cause freight bottlenecks,” the report suggested.

The report suggests other strategies to mitigate congestion issues for trucking may consist of regulatory changes, operating practices or changes in the operating hours of freight facilities, delivery schedules or manufacturing plants.

“Addressing customs, immigration and security issues will reduce congestion at border ports-of-entry,” the report added. “These technology, operating and policy changes can be accomplished with attention to the needs of all stakeholders and can produce as much from the current systems and investments as possible,”