You should enjoy the fresh air while you still can

If you were in New York and had a parcel that had to be delivered to Los Angeles, getting in a truck and driving it there would not be the first solution to occur to you. Yet, this is how many of the goods you use arrive in stores. Long-distance trucks carry almost 200 million tons of goods in the U.S. every year.

That’s a lot of offensive gestures from drivers who are stuck behind them. But the costs of the motor carrier industry go far beyond road rage.

Trucks account for just 6 percent of the highway miles driven in the U.S., but they contribute to half of the smog-causing air pollution. The average 18-wheeler emits as much nitrogen oxide and fine particulates as 150 passenger cars.

The EPA does not hold trucks to fuel efficiency standards comparable to the ones for cars. Since the Motor Carrier Deregulation Act of 1980, many truckers are independent owner-operators and could not afford to comply with regulations forcing them to purchase new trucks.

The rampant pollution caused by trucks has serious consequences for human health. An estimated 1,200 premature deaths in southern California are caused each year as a result of pollution from the trucking hub around the Port of Los Angeles. Diesel pollution from trucks is estimated by the EPA to cause 360,000 asthma attacks each year and almost 6,000 cases of chronic bronchitis.

Yet, it remains much more likely that goods will cross the country by big rigs instead of by rail. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever driven on an interstate. Trucks carried 62 percent of the value and 28 percent of the weight of the total freight transported in the U.S. in 2005, while trains carried 15 percent of the value and 21 percent of the weight. These statistics reflect a difference in the goods typically transported by trucks and rail. Still, rail transit could carry a much higher proportion of America’s freight and would reduce the environmental effect of transporting goods.

Trains are far from pollution free, but their environmental effect is significantly less than that of trucks. Also, the fuel efficiency of trains has steadily improved over the past 20 years. In 2002, railways moved a ton of freight an average of over 400 miles per gallon of fuel, while the average truck moved a ton of freight only 59 miles.

The fuel efficiency of trains is an increase of over 60 percent since 1980, when trains moved a ton of goods an average of 250 miles on a gallon of fuel. Rail transportation is also more efficient than trucking in terms of emissions.

An EPA study concluded that trucks emit three times more nitrogen oxide and particulates per ton of goods per mile. Studies estimate that every ton mile that travels by rail instead of freight reduces greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds.

The Obama administration should do everything it can to expand rail infrastructure and remove subsidies in place for trucking. Road taxes paid by the industry do not fully account for the wear and tear to roads resulting from trucks, and taxpayers must pick up the slack.

The president has voiced his support for the expansion of passenger rail transport, but so far, rail freight seems to be the neglected step child of the environmental movement.

Getting stopped for a freight train is almost as annoying as darting in and out of highway lanes to get around slow-moving trucks belching out green house gases, but the next time you’re stopped at a crossing, roll down the window and enjoy the (comparatively) fresh air.

Amy is a freshman in math and is putting the pedal to the metal in her classes this week.