The federal government seems to have finally gotten around to developing a National Freight Strategic Plan (NFSP) to guide funding priorities for transportation infrastructure projects.
Development of such a plan was called for by Congress in highway funding legislation that was enacted in 2015, and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a draft proposal for the NFSP that same year.
Congress handed DOT a mammoth task five years ago, calling on it to assess performance of the National Multimodal Freight Network (as it was then defined), and provide a forecast of future freight needs. This included predicting freight volumes for the succeeding five-, 10- and 20-year periods. DOT also was directed to identify major trade gateways and national freight corridors that connect major population centers and other major freight generators, and pinpoint bottlenecks blamed for creating significant congestion.
It also was told to assess statutory, regulatory technological, institutional, financial and other barriers to improved freight transportation performance, and describe the opportunities for overcoming those barriers, along with identifying best practices that would serve to improve intermodal connectivity.
By 2016 the department had come up with a draft plan developed from extensive stakeholder comment and which garnered widespread support from those in the private sector and state government policymakers impacted by those policies. But all of that work seemed to be forgotten in the ensuing years.
Since that time, Congress and the Obama and Trump administrations have been deadlocked and unable to enact another multi-year infrastructure program, and the draft policy was not updated. In the meantime, much has changed in the ways the nation’s freight is transported and handled, and the need for an updated plan became manifest.
“A national freight strategy will be helpful to inform infrastructure planning and to support future freight efficiencies,” DOT said in its Dec. 27 notice. “The nation's freight transportation system is a complex network of almost 7 million miles of highways, railways, navigable waterways and pipelines. The components of this network are linked through hundreds of seaports, airports and intermodal facilities.”
DOT estimates that freight tonnage will increase by 44% between 2015 and 2045, which will place increasing strain on our nation's freight system. “Today, that freight system moves approximately 18 billion tons of freight every year across all the modes, but congestion has been increasing, particularly on our nation's highways,” the department observed.
It noted that the trucking industry experienced almost 1.2 billion hours of delay in 2016 because of traffic congestion on the National Highway System, at a cost of $34 billion in truck driver wages, not including wasted fuel and increased inventory carrying costs for affected shippers.
The freight mixture has changed, too. Prior to 2005, virtually all crude oil was moved via pipeline; six years later rail shipments of crude oil increased substantially. “Increases in domestic energy production, including increased liquefied natural gas movements, will require more interplay between pipelines, rail and tanker/barge movements,” DOT said.
The explosive growth of e-commerce is adding considerable pressure on distribution networks, contributing to growing urban congestion and adding to the volume of intermodal traffic. DOT pointed out that air cargo transportation has become particularly important for high-value commodities like electronics and pharmaceuticals, and air cargo is projected to be the fastest growing freight mode with annual tonnage growth of 4.3%.
DOT declared, “More than ever, transportation planning and infrastructure investment, particularly for freight, must be considered within the broader systems context that accounts for all modes and both public- and private-sector actors to retain the United States’ global competitive advantage.”
Seeking New Input
In addition to the 11 questions that DOT sought answers to from the public back in 2015, the department laid out a list of additional points it would like to see addressed in comments in its Dec. 27 notice that are due to be submitted no later than Feb. 10. They are:
1. What are the three most important challenges facing the U.S. freight transportation system?
2. What should be long- and short-term national freight system goals? How can states, local agencies and private stakeholders most effectively advance these national goals?
3. How should DOT measure freight transportation system performance? Those commenting are asked to consider both safety and efficiency, as well as performance thresholds across multimodal metrics (i.e., hours of delay, infrastructure conditions, planning time index) that represent untenable performance for the public or private sector. The department also wants input on how performance metrics could be best employed to inform DOT’s discretionary grant programs.
4. What industry freight-specific knowledge is critical to understanding supply chains and how economic trends impact freight logistics and cargo movements? How can such data and/or knowledge be procured or shared among public and private sector partners? Are there technological innovations, such as blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT), that DOT should know about?
5. What should be considered regarding vital operational or equipment innovations, emerging technology advances from research communities, as well as infrastructure or facility concepts in freight transportation?
6. What approach should the federal government use to invest in the multimodal freight system? How would this approach apply to each transportation mode, for freight in general, for specific industries, or for freight assets owned by the private sector (i.e., rail, pipelines and maritime)? What are best practices for identifying projects that involve both public and private sector assets and for encouraging communication between the public and private sector to complete those projects?
7. What barriers (such as regulatory, technological, institutional and statutory) are critical to freight efficiency that DOT should better understand? The department specifically would like to know which of these barriers affect freight origination and/or destination areas, as well as intermodal transfers, and receive information about the root causes of the inefficiencies.
8. What information is critical to understanding the unique infrastructure and operational freight impacts faced by local communities? DOT asks that comments detail any best practices in economic development and planning processes that support freight-intensive activity or innovative financing. It also seeks descriptions of current and prospective infrastructure safety enhancements that should be considered.
9. How is a bottleneck defined in a particular industry or mode, including both surface and maritime transportation?
10. What else should DOT consider (including the 11 statutory criteria it sought answers to in 2015) and do to improve freight transportation in the U.S.?
The department also is encouraging the broadest possible participation in the process, including those in the private sector. “DOT seeks information directly from the public and stakeholders to inform development of this national freight strategy,” it stressed. “As daily users of the system, private sector and non-public perspectives are vital inputs for understanding operational challenges along the freight system.”