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Addressing Freight Infrastructure Challenges is Focus of DOT Draft Strategic Plan

Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg Trade Report

The Department of Transportation has posted on its website for public comment a draft National Freight Strategic Plan that aims to describe the U.S. freight transportation system and future demands on it; identify major corridors and gateways; assess physical, institutional and financial barriers to improvement; and specify best practices for enhancing the system.

The report states that U.S. freight transportation is safer and more environmentally friendly and imposes fewer adverse impacts on most communities today than in past decades. Even so, growing population, increasing demand for goods, sudden changes in commodities and movement patterns, the need to remain competitive in an increasingly complex global marketplace, and aging transportation infrastructure have placed the U.S. freight system under serious strain. At the same time, the level of investment in and dedication to addressing freight-specific transportation needs has not kept pace with the growing economy.

Trends and Challenges. The draft NFSP discusses six major trends affecting freight transportation and the challenges they present.

- projected 42 percent growth in freight movements across all modes by 2040

- underinvestment in the freight system in terms of both financial resources and workforce

- difficulty in planning and implementing freight projects with national-level impacts because most of the publicly owned freight system is planned and managed by state and local governments as well as metropolitan planning organizations

- continued need to address safety, security and resilience

- increased global economic competition, which results in port congestion and equipment shortages as well as rising commercial traffic and congestion at land border ports

- application and deployment of new technologies that will enable faster and more accurate analysis of freight routes, travel times and infrastructure capacity; automate and expedite inspection processes; increase productivity; and change the skill sets needed to work in freight

Strategies. The draft NFSP outlines a number of strategies to deal with these challenges. Some are those the DOT is now or may consider undertaking that can be implemented with existing statutory authority and resources. Others may require statutory changes or new partners, technologies, funding sources or other innovations. Many focus on encouraging collaboration among private, state and local stakeholders.

Infrastructure Bottlenecks. Strategies to address infrastructure bottlenecks (physical locations such as bridges, border crossing facilities, at-grade railroad crossings and truck gates at ports that disrupt the free flow of goods) include the following.

- work further with external partners to identify and share best practices for utilizing existing capacities of all freight transportation modes to increase efficiencies and alleviate congestion

- improve the safety, security and resilience of the freight transportation system by implementing and enforcing safety regulations to address driver fatigue, vehicle stability systems and transportation of hazardous liquids; considering new regulations to replace and improve outdated freight vehicle operating safety rules; and working with the Department of Homeland Security to assure the security of the transportation system

- facilitate intermodal connectivity by encouraging the use of existing resources and pursuing two targeted multimodal freight investment programs

- identify major trade gateways and multimodal national freight networks/corridors in a Multimodal Freight Network map that will combine the most critical modal components and show the connections between them

- mitigate the impacts of freight projects and movements on communities by providing funds to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion caused by freight vehicles, supporting research on less impactful freight technologies, and efforts to facilitate freight project planning and implementation

- support research and promote adoption of new technologies and best practices

Institutional Bottlenecks. DOT and its partners each have processes in place to plan for, review, permit and implement transportation projects, but stakeholders may have different capabilities, priorities and objectives that must be reconciled to effectively plan and implement projects.

- streamline project planning, review, permitting and approvals; e.g., by creating an interagency group to help reduce project delivery timelines and improve outcomes for communities and the environment

- facilitate multijurisdictional, multimodal collaboration and solutions by developing improved freight transportation models, data and performance measurement; sharing best practices for freight planning; making periodic updates to the NFSP to encourage multimodal policies and programs; supporting advisory committees and public forums with stakeholders; and encouraging the effective use of funding available at the national level

- improve coordination between the public and private sectors

- continue to develop and deploy newer and more advanced freight data resources and advance the measurement and analysis of transit times for different commodities from a multimodal, origin-to-destination perspective

- develop the next generation freight transportation workforce

Financial Bottlenecks. To establish federal freight transportation funding that is substantial, continuing, multimodal, reliable and specifically dedicated to freight transportation projects, the plan supports the following.

- ensure dedicated freight funding, such as the $18 billion over six years that would be provided under the Obama administration’s GROW AMERICA proposal through two dedicated, multimodal freight grant programs for targeted investments

- use existing grant programs, such as TIGER and BATIC, to support freight

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