Truck traffic surges on Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, drops at George Washington Bridge
- Truck traffic at the Tappan Zee and Mario Cuomo bridges increased from 1.4 million in 2010 to 2.4 million in 2017
- Customers who wants their orders delivered in two days or less are helping to fuel the increase in truck traffic in the lower Hudson Valley and northern New Jersey area.
- Truck traffic at the George Washington Bridge was 3.68 million in 2017, down from 4.35 million in 2007.
- Truckers are avoiding the George Washington Bridge because of congestion and significantly higher tolls
Next time you’re on the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, glance to the left. Now, the right. Check the rearview mirror.
They’re everywhere, right?
Short-haul trucks, tractor-trailers, tankers.
If you think there are a lot more trucks out on the bridge today, you’re right. A lot more. Each day, a bustling caravan of commerce rumbles through the Lower Hudson Valley and over the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge on its way south to New York City and north to New England.
Truck traffic at the Cuomo Bridge and its predecessor, the Tappan Zee Bridge, increased to 2.4 million in 2017 from 1.4 million in 2010, an investigation by The Journal News/lohud has found.
That’s an average of approximately 166,000 more trucks on the bridge every year. And that only includes toll-paying trucks headed southbound. Northbound trucks cross for free. And last year's truck traffic totals appear to be keeping pace. As of September, some 1.76 million trucks had crossed the Cuomo bridge.
“Very interesting numbers there,” veteran transportation analyst Charles Komanoff said when showed the numbers. “I wouldn't have believed it if you hadn't said so.”
For starters, truck traffic, particularly in urban areas, has been climbing over the past 10 years due in part to low gas prices, an improved economy and the growth of E-commerce, online purchases by customers who expect their orders to arrive in two days or less, industry experts say. And while truck traffic hasn’t quite reached pre-recession levels it’s getting there.
New York region chokepoint
In New York and New Jersey, where trucks deliver 90 percent of the freight delivered in the region, that growth is felt most at its chokepoints.
At the Hudson River’s major crossings, the Cuomo and the George Washington Bridge 21 miles south – the trend is playing out in different ways. While the Cuomo Bridge is gaining trucks, the GWB has been losing them.
A big reason for that is tolls.
Today, at the GWB, trucks pay $100 or so, less with E-ZPass, to cross into New York City, thanks to a series of toll hikes for passenger cars and trucks the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey approved in 2011.
At the Cuomo? A five-axle truck with E-ZPass pays $32.75 if it crosses during the morning rush, the costliest time of the day. Knock half off that if you cross between midnight and 6:14 a.m.
But it’s not just cost that has truckers calculating their options. It’s the wait.
Let Joe Fitzpatrick explain. Fitzpatrick runs Lightning Express, a self-described mom-and-pop trucking operation out of Modena in Ulster County. He sends a dozen trucks into the city every day.
“I’ve seen trucks just sitting on Route 80 trying to get on the GW Bridge,” Fitzpatrick says. “It’s insane. And when you get there they don’t give you a discount for sitting in traffic for three hours.”
No, they don’t.
“I try to avoid the George Washington Bridge as much as possible,” Fitzpatrick says.
He’s not the only one.
“There’s always construction,” said Chet Gordon, a photojournalist-turned-truck driver from Greenwood Lake who works for Missouri-based Prime Inc., one of the nation’s largest trucking fleets. “At midnight, 2 in the morning, it can be horrible. And don’t get caught in George Washington Bridge, Cross Bronx Expressway traffic if there’s a Yankee game.”
The GWB is undergoing one of the biggest makeovers in its history as it closes in on its 100th birthday.
Over the next several years, the Port Authority is spending some $1.9 billion on nearly a dozen rehabilitation projects, including the replacement of the bridge’s 592 steel suspender ropes.
No surprise then that last week, the American Transportation Research Institute named the New Jersey borough of Fort Lee, home to the interchange of routes 95 and 4 leading into the bridge, the country’s worst truck bottleneck.
The Cuomo Bridge didn’t crack the institute’s top 100, a ranking that uses GPS data to calculate average truck speed. (The interchange of interstates 95 and 287 in Rye came in at 83 with an average speed of 51.9 while Fort Lee’s average was 31.7.)
Cuomo's gain is GWB's loss
Over roughly the same period the Cuomo and Tappan Zee bridges gained 1 million trucks, the GWB lost about 2 percent of its truck traffic, according to the Port Authority.
That adds up to a loss of 71,000 trucks, between 2010 and 2016, still a fraction of the 43.2 million eastbound crossings at the bridge, the vast majority of which are passenger cars.
“That reduction has had no impact on the Port Authority’s ability to operate and maintain the crossing,” Port Authority spokesman Steve Coleman said. “Our Board is briefed on a regular basis on all of the agency’s financials, including toll revenues, and makes its decisions about agency spending based on the information it receives.”
In 2007, truck traffic on the GWB reached a high of 4.35 million. But in recent years, it hasn’t come close to that. In 2017, it was about 3.68 million.
An analysis of Port Authority figures by The Journal News/lohud shows that between 2007 and 2017, the GWB lost about 671,000 trucks, a dip of 15.4 percent.
Impact on tolls
The newfound volume in truck traffic at the Cuomo fills the coffers of a New York State Thruway Authority eager for cash to pay for a shiny new $3.9 billion bridge, which opened to traffic in 2017.
Revenue from truck traffic at the Tappan Zee/Cuomo Bridge nearly doubled between 2010 and 2017, jumping to nearly $47.8 million from $24.6 million.
That number might be even higher if the truck industry hadn’t managed to beat back a 2012 push by the Thruway Authority to raise commercial tolls by 45 percent.
Thruway officials have taken notice.
“Commercial revenue at the Tappan Zee Bridge has been positively impacted by a shift of commercial traffic from the George Washington Bridge to the Tappan Zee,” Thruway officials write in a December 2017 report.
That’s a good thing, right? Maybe it could help keep tolls down in a few years when tolls frozen until at least 2020 will need to go up to pay for the new bridge.
Depends on your perspective.
“Higher revenues are good news for the Thruway Authority and good news for drivers who are hoping that the Thruway Authority can minimize toll hikes,” said Philip Plotch, a professor at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City and author of “Politics Across the Hudson,” an account of the construction of the Cuomo Bridge. “Not such great news for people who hate driving next to big trucks.”
Plotch and others are uncertain when the revenue bump will be used to keep the Cuomo Bridge toll down.
“It could keep future tolls down,” Plotch said. “It's up to the Thruway Authority and the governor how they want to raise enough revenue to operate the Thruway. They could use bridge tolls to keep tolls down on the entire Thruway. That's what the NYSTA did for most of its history. Revenue from the Tappan Zee Bridge helped subsidize the rest of the Thruway system.”
Passenger car totals at the bridge have increased between 2010 and 2017.
- In 2010, approximately 23 million cars crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge.
- In 2017, the number of cars spiked to 24.6 million.
- For passenger cars, it’s $5 for a one-way trip, $4.75 with E-ZPass, the lowest in the region.
- In 2017, passenger car revenue was $103.4 million, down from $104.7 million in 2010, a dip attributed partly to the rollout of cashless tolling.
Thruway officials say the twin-span Cuomo Bridge, with its eight lanes of traffic and breakdown lanes, was built to handle the extra trucks. Truck wear and tear was among the reasons cited for the need to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge.
“The Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge serves as one of the most important corridors for commerce in the Northeast and receives a significant volume of truck traffic,” Thruway spokeswoman Jennifer Givner told The Journal News/lohud.com. “In moving ahead with the construction of a new bridge, the Thruway Authority required that it feature critical improvements to meet the needs of current and future truck drivers including wider lanes, emergency shoulders, better roadway lighting and a more consistent and gentler grade to allow trucks to maintain speed and ensure more reliable travel times.
Joe Fitzpatrick does the math
A few weeks ago, Fitzpatrick took a call from someone in Harriman who needed a load of cereal delivered to Brooklyn.
Fitzpatrick broke out Google maps and ran the route.
If his drivers used the Cuomo Bridge, the Thruway and the Whitestone Bridge both ways, the toll would run $110.27. If he subbed in the GWB for the Cuomo, the toll would be $170.25.
“I’m a mom-and-pop operation so when I can cut corners I’m going to have to try,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick’s monthly E-ZPass bill runs about $6,500 per month for a fleet of 13 vehicles, which includes cargo vans and four-axle tractor trailers.
Each night, Fitzpatrick maps out his truck routes for the following day, factoring in cost and time.
Sometimes, he has little choice. Leaving early would mean he’d save money at the Cuomo but that would also mean having his truck sit for hours outside a Manhattan business until it opens.
“We try to leave as early as possible but sometimes customers dictate our delivery hours,” Fitzpatrick said.
For Fitzpatrick, taking the Cuomo bridge makes sense, especially for trips out to Queens and Long Island. His business is located 55 miles north of the Cuomo in Ulster County.
The same goes for carriers based in the southern and western parts of New Jersey as well as Pennsylvania. But for trucks that start out directly south of the Cuomo, taking the new bridge would not make as much sense. They'd add miles to their trip driving north. Miles mean time and time means money.
E-commerce fuels frenzy
In recent years, Fitzpatrick and others have noticed the uptick in deliveries fueled by E-commerce.
“When people start complaining about trucks being on their quaint little streets I just tell them to stop shopping online,” he said.
Between 1997 and 2017, so-called e-commerce sales have exploded, from less than 1 percent of total retail sales to more than 9 percent, a February report by ATRI noted.
“A key conclusion that can be drawn from shorter truck trips and overall (vehicle miles traveled) increases is that e-commerce has significantly increased the number of new short-haul and last-mile trips," the report notes.
In urban areas, vehicle miles – the measurement used to gauge truck traffic – increased nearly 18 percent between 2011 and 2016, while truck traffic in rural areas fell 2.2 percent, according to the ATRI study.
To navigate all this, truck companies turn to folks like Steven Hawk.
Hawk and his wife ran their own trucking company for 40 years. Hawk used to balance traffic, tolls and taxes for the most affordable option. Today, he consults with truckerson how to navigate federal, state and local trucking regulations.
“Most of these guys are owner-operators,” said Hawk. “If they can save a dollar, they’ll drive 20 miles out of their way. The toll makes a big difference.”
Hawk said the truck traffic surge at the Cuomo Bridge is being fueled by owner-operators eager to save a few bucks on their way north into New England.
He also said that trucks coming out of the western part of New Jersey who use Route 80 have in recent years been turning to the Cuomo Bridge more often.
In the past, those trucks would remain on I-80 all the way into the GWB and then take the Cross Bronx Expressway as they made their way up I-95.
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These days, truckers have figured out they can get off I-80 near Parsippany, New Jersey and take I-287 to the Cuomo before getting on I-95.
Until 1993, truckers didn’t have as many direct routes to the bridge. But that year, Interstate 287 was connected to the New York State Thruway, a move that prompted a legal challenge by Rockland County officials who feared the toll-free byway would lead to more traffic and more pollution.
Gordon said he’s seen signs in Pennsylvania alerting truckers to take such a route and avoid the GWB.
The blue route is the new MCB route, red is the GWB route.
It’s roughly 56 miles from Parsippany to the Connecticut-New York border, and about 52 miles if trucks remained on I-80 on their way to the GWB.
A four-mile difference amounts to less than a gallon of diesel fuel, roughly $2.30 extra.
And then, after you get over the GWB, there’s congestion on the Cross Bronx Expressway, which on most days resembles a parking lot.
With driver hours regulated to prevent against fatigue, the choice becomes critical.
“If you think you’re going to be sitting on the Cross Bronx Expressway when your hours run out,” Hawk said. “Well maybe you want to be sitting on the Cross Westchester Expressway.”
Reporter Curtis Tate of The Record contributed to this story