As construction of warehouses and distribution centers continues to increase throughout the region, the challenges of transporting all that freight continue to rise in importance.
These issues touch on a host of trends and factors, from the changing needs of the labor force to the amount of time people spend driving to and from work navigating busy highways.
To identify and explore the issues facing freight transportation, several regional organizations hosted an Eastern Pennsylvania Freight Summit at Lehigh University’s Mountaintop Campus in Bethlehem on Thursday.
The first day of the event included panel discussions and several speakers, followed by guided tours of manufacturing and distribution facilities in the region today.
PennDOT gathered the people involved in the summit as a way to explore strategies for addressing these issues and finding solutions through a regional strategy. At the first panel discussion, experts said a regional perspective is important for planning for the increases in freight transportation.
“The problems change consistently,” said Becky Bradley, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, a panelist. “It takes the village to make our communities work.”
This includes working with municipalities, private businesses, nonprofits and governments, she added. In addition, organizations involved in planning need to do more than create static plans but be prepared to adapt to the rapid changes driven by technology, which will have a direct impact on transportation.
Having the ability to be innovative and open-minded is essential, she added.
“The reason regional organizations were created was to provide perspective at scale,” said Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, and a panelist. “We also have access to funding.”
He also discussed the importance of including private sector stakeholders in freight plans and working together to share data.
About 250 people attended the event, hosted by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and Tri-County Planning Commission.
One of the ways the LVPC is addressing freight transportation challenges is by focusing on quality of life issues, Bradley said.
“As trucks and cars really start to create significant congestion, we need to focus on alternative needs of transportation,” Bradley said.
This includes creating ways to develop more pedestrian accessible routes, such as additional connections on the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor.
Naturally, while addressing freight transportation, officials also have to focus on issues of public health and safety that result from increased traffic.
“We still need to find ways to improve our air quality and maximize our mobility,” Bradley said.
WHERE’S THE LAND?
Many of the logistics and manufacturing companies are seeking the same land as those companies looking to build housing in the Lehigh Valley, Bradley added.
Land availability for distribution centers and warehouses is also scarce in the Delaware Valley.
“In our region, some of the challenges we face are land availability,” said Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which covers nine counties in two states including Bucks, Montgomery and Philadelphia as well as parts of South Jersey.
“I think what we are all starting to see is this idea of localized distribution centers,” Seymour said.
These smaller facilities are cropping up in cities in his region, according to Seymour.
Truck parking is a huge issue for the Delaware Valley region, not just for those trucks parking overnight but also those trucks pausing to make a delivery, Seymour said. In addition, trucks used for special events often have difficulty finding parking.
In the Lehigh Valley, Bradley said this is also an issue.
“The people that are occupying the sites are kicking the trucks off the sites,” Bradley said. “So they are trying to find spots to park all over the place.”
Most of the warehouse and logistics facilities are built on speculation and managing where those trucks can and cannot go is a responsibility of both governments as well as the private sector, Bradley said.
Another issue affecting truck parking is the federal regulations on electronic driving logs for truck drivers, which require drivers to stop driving after a certain number of hours, she added.
Meeting with companies as they determine their shift schedules can also help arrange for better timing of employees moving in and out buildings and trucks moving around on site.
Bradley said Fed-Ex Ground was helpful in this regard by approaching the LVPC on how best to arrange the shift schedule.
WORKERS IN DEMAND
While the truck driver shortage is a nationwide problem, the region’s workers have many options for jobs in the transportation, logistics and warehousing sector.
It’s one of the Lehigh Valley’s the fastest growing industry sectors, said Nancy Dischinat, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Workforce Development Board, and a panelist.
“The Lehigh Valley has entered a very competitive marketplace for workers,” Dischinat said. “We are at full employment.”
Mack Trucks is looking to hire an additional 50 production technicians at its Lower Macungie Township plant, and Fed-Ex Ground in Allen Township is looking hire 800 workers and plans to open in August, Dischinat said.
She said her organization offers many resources to help train workers in the transportation, logistics and warehouse sector.
At the opening session of the freight summit, PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards reviewed steps the Gov. Wolf administration has taken to address freight-related challenges.
According to the state’s Comprehensive Freight Movement Plan, trucks on Pennsylvania highways will haul nearly 1.5 billion tons of freight statewide by 2040.