By Luz Lazo,
As development has boomed in the District, so have commercial and construction traffic, much to the consternation of residents and other road users who complain the trucks and other heavy vehicles bring noise, fail to follow traffic rules and clog already narrow streets, creating safety concerns.
“You wake up and all you hear is truck noise. Truck noise!” Bill Yelverton, a resident of Brookland in Northeast, told members of the D.C. Council at a community roundtable last month. “It starts at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning.”
After 23 years living near the intersection of 13th and Franklin streets NE, the past two years have been unbearable, he said. So much has the presence of commercial trucks troubled neighbors that they have put up #NOTRUCKSBrookland signs and overwhelmed the neighborhood email discussion group with complaints.
“We can’t get peace from the trucks,” Yelverton said. “Something should be done.”
D.C. officials say city regulations, including weight restrictions and designated truck routes, aim to strike a balance in which residents, road users and industry can coexist. But banning trucks altogether, even from streets where the uses are mostly residential, isn’t an effective, feasible or enforceable alternative. Trucks are essential to the city’s economy: They ferry an estimated $20 billion worth of goods into the city each year — ranging from construction materials to the food served in city restaurants.
“Trucks are not coming through the city on the way someplace else,” said Sam Zimbabwe, a top official in the District Department of Transportation.
“We have a lot of construction going on throughout the city and in parts of the city that have not seen as much construction activity,” he said. “And then we have trucks that are servicing businesses and residences and we have more and more, providing the goods and services we need them to provide.”
The deliveries contribute to thousands of jobs, the city’s construction boom and the vibrancy of the food and hospitality industries, according to a 2014 analysis of the impact of truck freight in the District. As the city continues to grow, shipments too will increase, the report said, projecting a 49 percent growth in daily truck traffic by 2040.
While primary routes such as Georgia Avenue, 14th and 16th streets, and South Dakota Avenue will see relatively low rates of growth in such traffic, other routes “may experience an increase in the amount of trucks by 2040, from zero to 1,000 trucks twice a day to 1,000 to 5,000 trucks twice a day, ” the report says.
Residents on edge
In some neighborhoods, the upward trend has residents on edge. They have filed petitions, sought “no thru truck” signs, speed bumps and automated enforcement. They have sent letters to council members and called on DDOT and the police for help.
“It’s become a safety concern,” said Robert Looper III, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member in Fort Lincoln, in upper Northeast, where the main problem is trucks delivering to the nearby shopping center anchored by a Costco and Lowes, and which often park overnight for early-morning deliveries.
In the downtown area, delivery trucks are blamed for clogging already congested streets by double-parking and circling the block repeatedly seeking spots for loading and unloading. Cyclists tweet photos of trucks blocking bike lanes, transit users grumble about them idling in bus zones, and drivers complain they ignore rush-hour restrictions that prohibit parking in major commuter corridors such as K Street. But with few parking options and faced with narrow streets and heavy congestion, many delivery truck drivers are willing to risk tickets to make their deadlines.
“Unfortunately there isn’t enough curbside parking and loading zones available,” said Louis Campion, president and chief executive of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, which has about 1,100 members including large delivery companies FedEx and UPS. “There aren’t any other options.”
While the city has tried to improve truck traffic flow with better freight signage, streamlining the permitting process for trucks and an interactive truck route map, the limited curbside space is an increasing problem in the era of growing e-commerce.
“We all want our medical supplies, our food, our clothes. Inevitably those goods ultimately are going to end up on a truck that has to deliver them, and the challenge is only going to grow given the consumer expectation of home delivery and next-day delivery,” Campion said.
The District two years ago announced plans to offer financial incentives to businesses that opted to receive deliveries overnight, when traffic is lighter and curb space is more plentiful. But it’s unclear how many, if any, companies signed on. DDOT spokesman Terry Owens said the city continues to encourage overnight deliveries when possible but “we recognize that off-hour deliveries will not remove all trucks from the street during normal business hours.”
Disgruntled residents also accuse truck drivers of speeding through residential streets, polluting the air and often leaving dust and debris in their wake.
Nowhere does the presence of trucks seem to be more troubling than in the Northeast quadrant. That’s because the bulk of trucks originate in that portion of the city, which still houses a few of the District’s remaining industrial zones. And, a good number of delivery services come from the eastern portion of the region, including Prince George’s County. As a result, freight heading downtown or to gentrifying neighborhoods in Northwest such as Petworth and Columbia Heights, first treks through the east.
More than 40 percent of inbound trucks enter the city from the northeast on routes such as Rhode Island (U.S. 1) and New York (U.S. 50) avenues. For outbound traffic, more than 75 percent of trucks leave via the District’s eastern and southern borders with Maryland, according to the 2014 city report.
“Trucks are cutting through very small residential streets and people want to know what are the designated truck routes,” Looper said. “We should really try to show these trucks where they can go. It is not very clear.”
D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who represents the area, said police have been out enforcing the rules, but the larger question is whether trucks should be allowed to go through some of those neighborhoods at all.
“It is confusing because you have some signs that say one thing and some signs that have been removed in some places,” he said at a meeting last month.
DDOT has issued a map that designates truck routes that are supposed to be followed. There also are weight restrictions in place where the infrastructure can’t handle overweight vehicles. And, “no thru trucks” signs are scattered throughout the city, many of them to discourage heavy vehicles from cutting through smaller residential streets.
But enforcement has proven difficult if not impossible, city officials acknowledge. It requires police to pull over every truck to potentially weigh them and/or try to figure out if they have business on a particular block. In a way, officials say, the signs give the false sense that trucks will never travel on that street, but access is allowed to businesses in those blocks. A delivery, whether it’s furniture or construction material or a FedEx package, has to get to its destination.
Still, city officials acknowledge that current regulations — and the lack of enforcement — can be frustrating for residents and truck drivers and haulers. Major arterials such as Rhode Island and New York avenues are well known for truck traffic, but it gets trickier with the smaller routes to get across town.
“What some people think is a residential street might still be an arterial street that provides important connections from one place to another in the city,” Zimbabwe said.
Take 13th and Franklin streets, where residents are fighting to keep trucks out. Franklin is one of two streets in the neighborhood that go over railroad tracks, linking traffic from two major arterials: Rhode Island and Michigan avenues.
No signs of stopping
With more than 4,400 active construction sites in the District, including numerous road projects and thousands of deliveries to businesses, government offices and residents, the number of trips trucks make are hard to track.
DDOT keeps track of the oversize and overweight vehicles — those weighing more than 88,000 pounds — which are required to get a city permit. In the past year, the city issued more than 5,300 such single-haul permits, and data show a slightly larger number of oversize trucks came into the city in the two years prior.
Industry officials stress the trucks are in town to do business, not trouble residents.
“Our drivers would not intentionally take a shortcut,” said Marc Mandel, chief operating officer at Fort Myer Construction, which is based in Northeast D.C. Drivers are trained to follow the rules of the road and be mindful of residents and the other road users. They plan routes ahead and follow the city’s designated truck routes, he said. When possible, trips are scheduled during off-peak hours to limit the interference with the daily traffic flow.
But the changes in traffic flow, they say, are a sign of the city’s progress. Fort Myer, for example, has 65 trucks out at any given time of the day, working on multiple projects across the city, including the major Beach Drive reconstruction in Northwest, a three-year project. The company, which has been in business in the city for 45 years, also has contracts to upgrade city roads and bridges.
“If you drive around the city, you can see the sheer number of new buildings under construction,” Mandel said. “It is amazing. There are power cranes everywhere.” All that construction, he said, requires a lot of concrete trucks on the road, a lot of fill, and dirt and materials that need to be hauled.
“If you don’t use trucks, you can fly it in, but the cost and the feasibility of doing that will be costly and overwhelming, and I don’t know if the D.C. government would allow you to do that,” he said. “We are probably stuck with trucks for a while.”
Fort Myer’s trucks originate in Northeast, where the company has its headquarters and two asphalt plants. The company’s trucks are among those that travel through Brookland, where some residents report cracks in their homes and shaking from heavy machinery and tractor-trailers.
Trucks are in the neighborhood so frequently that Elise Scott says she no longer needs to see them to know they’re there; she’s come to recognize their rumbling from a distance. It’s almost like having post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.
“Here comes one,” Scott said standing outside her Brookland bungalow where she once counted as many as 90 trucks passing in an hour.
“Look! Look how fast this guy is going!” she said, alarmed as a red dump truck emerged from Franklin Street, past 13th Street NE, a two-lane street of single-family homes. Not far behind was a 10-wheeler and a garbage truck.
“They can use Rhode Island Avenue,” she said. “They just don’t want to.”