Fostering America's Freight Economy
The FAST Act delivers programs and critical funding to reenergize investment in the movement of goods in the United States.
The freight transportation system in the United States is preparing for a major overhaul. And it comes at a critical time: As noted in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2015 vision, Beyond Traffic, and further highlighted in USDOT’s 2015 draft National Freight Strategic Plan, the population of the United States is forecast to grow by 70 million people by 2045. Over the same period, freight volume is estimated to increase by 45 percent.
Adding to the challenge is the backlog of projects to repair or replace transportation infrastructure across the Nation. When new or expanded infrastructure is needed, the projects face a complex planning process involving differing financial resources, capabilities, and priorities of the public and private sectors.
The importance of the U.S. freight transportation system cannot be overstated. The system forms an interconnected network enabling the movement of food, energy, fabricated goods, and raw materials to keep citizens employed, communities healthy, and the Nation competitive on a global scale. Together, these components make up the freight economy.
The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in December 2015, authorized 5 years of critically needed funding and key programs to improve the Nation’s freight transportation system and U.S. economic competitiveness. The coming changes, fueled by the infusion of Federal funding matched in part by public and private investments, will arrive in the form of capital and operating improvements to the Nation’s roads, bridges, ports, rail, and other surface transportation facilities. The projects will be supported by enhanced analysis, multimodal planning, and coordination.
USDOT is committed to strengthening this interdependent system. As stated by Federal Highway Administrator Gregory G. Nadeau, “The success of our freight economy depends on our ability to achieve and preserve the viability of our local, domestic, and international businesses; the existence of a good supply of both jobs and a trained workforce; the health of our natural environment; clean, sustainable, and affordable domestic energy; protection of social and economic mobility; and the ability to leverage resources at the local and State levels to help America compete in global markets.”
Origins of FAST Freight
The lineage of the freight elements in the FAST Act is traceable to two key sources. First is the prior transportation authorization law, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act, which called for new freight-specific initiatives. The programs included the development of a National Freight Strategic Plan, the designation of data-driven highway networks relevant to freight, and the establishment of a freight performance measure for the interstate system. The law also envisioned individual State freight plans and State freight advisory committees.
The second source is the Obama Administration’s surface transportation authorization proposal, the Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency, and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities throughout America (GROW AMERICA) Act. The freight provisions of GROW AMERICA proposed two multiyear, dedicated funding programs with broad eligibilities under a planning and coordination rubric to enhance the multimodal strength and versatility of transportation supply chains. Provisions of GROW AMERICA are reflected in the FAST Act to various degrees.
By incorporating major aspects of MAP-21 and GROW AMERICA freight programs in the FAST Act and providing funding for investment, Congress launched a new era of Federal commitment to the improved movement of goods. The FAST Act links funding to planning, planning to collaboration, and prioritized investment to data-driven networks, knitting together several new and recently created freight initiatives. The programs provide the public sector with additional resources to make strategic investments to improve the efficiency of the U.S. freight system and provide for a safer, more cohesive network that will enhance communities and yield significant economic returns.
What’s New with The FAST Act?
The most apparent new opportunity created by the FAST Act is the provision of $10.8 billion in predictable, guaranteed formula funding and discretionary funding with broad eligibilities for freight projects through two new programs. States will receive over half of this funding as annual formula apportionments from the National Highway Freight Program, a total of $6.3 billion over 5 years with an average annual distribution of $1.2 billion nationwide.
To access these formula monies, States have begun to identify projects to make road and bridge improvements, eliminate bottlenecks, and address other surface transportation issues. Although the FAST Act targets the money for projects on defined highway networks, up to 10 percent is available for use on freight rail or intermodal (including ports) projects.
Beginning December 4, 2017, a State must have a freight plan to obligate National Highway Freight Program funds. The FAST Act also set out the elements that must be included in the plan. Whether States are developing a freight plan for the first time or refining an older product, their departments of transportation will need to incorporate analysis of significant congestion and bottlenecks, identify solutions and prioritize the initiatives to receive Federal funds, and invite input from a variety of stakeholders through existing State freight advisory committees.
This work will help State DOTs achieve a higher level of complex network analysis and attain greater impacts from their State freight plans. The plans are expected to include information that stakeholders will find useful regarding upcoming projects, long-range needs, and consideration of the movement of goods beyond traditional statewide transportation improvement plans.
The goals for the National Highway Freight Program (and at least one other FAST Act program, the Regional Infrastructure Accelerator Demonstration Program), support multistate corridor planning and the creation of multistate organizations to address freight connectivity--expanding States’ fields of view beyond their borders. The National Highway Freight Program also seeks to reduce potential environmental impacts related to the movement of freight.
USDOT has developed guidance on State freight plans and State freight advisory committees, as well as guidance on designating critical urban freight corridors and critical rural freight corridors. The designation process gives States and large metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) the ability to include additional segments of the highway system in the national highway freight network. Following designation, States will be able to apply funding from the National Highway Freight Program to projects on these designated roadway facilities.
A second new funding program with a strong (although not exclusive) freight focus provided in the FAST Act is the $4.5 billion from fiscal year 2016 to 2020 in discretionary grant money authorized under the Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects program. Known as FASTLANE, for Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-term Achievement of National Efficiencies, this program allows for the funding of highway, bridges, and freight projects (both highway and nonhighway facilities) and expands eligibility to a wider pool of applicants. States, MPOs, and other public sector entities can now compete for these funds.
The first $800 million--the amount provided by law for fiscal year 2016--is available for grants and was announced through a notice of funding opportunity in March, launching the process to solicit proposals for FASTLANE funding. In response, USDOT received 212 applications for FASTLANE projects, indicating widespread interest in the program and reflecting the dramatic need for Federal investment. The total amount of funding requested reached nearly $9.8 billion. The 2016 award cycle will culminate this summer with the first round of awards to projects selected by the Secretary of Transportation.
The Role of Data Research
Continuing the freight priorities set forth in MAP-21, the FAST Act strengthened the ability of States and MPOs to measure freight performance by granting them eligibility for data collection and analysis under the new formula funding for the National Highway Freight Program. Under a notice of proposed rulemaking released in April 2016, FHWA proposed a reliability and congestion measure for routes on the interstate system (the network identified by Congress for use in measuring freight performance). The proposed rule, which will require States and MPOs to set targets, measure activity, and report on target achievement, is open for public comment for 120 days, through August 20, 2016.
This new initiative and the FAST Act’s planning and prioritization requirements are supported by improved research aids from FHWA, such as the National Performance Management Research Data Set (NPMRDS), which offers data on truck travel times and can be used to measure and report on the freight performance measures required under MAP-21. FHWA provides free technical assistance to States and MPOs. In addition, the American Transportation Research Institute is improving a Web-based query tool for existing NPMRDS users to quickly and more easily access aspects of this large data set free of charge. This product is expected to be available later in 2016.
Benefits of Better Data and Technology
Ultimately, the Nation will benefit from this work in a number of ways. Whether a public agency chooses to meet an adverse condition with an infrastructure solution, with an operational change or new technology, or by investing in another mode of transportation to take the pressure off the existing system, the freight economy will improve.
Through data, States and MPOs can have a better understanding of the real-world performance of their interstate segments. For example, data might show that some highways are frequently unreliable. The causes could be extreme weather, long-term construction activity, roadway congestion related to freight or population growth, or restrictions on truck activity by time of day, such as hours of operation at ports and other freight facilities or traffic restrictions on freight.
Some areas might have structural or geographic bottlenecks where widening would be impossible or cost prohibitive, or could result in undesirable impacts on a community. Other facilities might be located in or near sensitive environmental areas. In these cases and others, analysis of the data, coupled with the input of the stakeholders who use these facilities, will help decisionmakers as they seek solutions and weigh investments in road projects, innovative technologies, or alternative modes such as rail and waterways.
The technology developments of today are also yielding new solutions in such areas as freight scheduling, routing for better throughput, materials and inspection tools, and vehicle and network design and operation. Such widespread innovation is helping decisionmakers at many levels of government and the private sector pursue a range of goals beyond efficiency. Other goals include safety, security (including protection from cyber risks), and resiliency (including preparation for climate change impacts and mitigation of those impacts). And because the freight economy is acutely sensitive to both investment and lack of investment by the public and private sectors, the impact of these decisions are felt not just in the regional freight economy but also as a factor in the Nation’s global economic competitiveness.
FHWA’s Freight Roundtables
To help advance the dialogue on the freight economy and support smart solutions for freight under the FAST Act and beyond, Administrator Nadeau is conducting a series of roundtable meetings, engaging with the business community and transportation suppliers and stakeholders in cities across the United States. Through these Beyond Traffic: Freight Economy Roundtables, key members of the freight industry are identifying challenges specific to their regions and providing FHWA with best practices to develop a chronicle of experience and a playbook for other communities facing similar issues.
An issue that stood out early in the series of roundtable meetings relates to the safety and community impacts associated with the movement of goods. The economic success of the United States depends in part upon efficient freight movement but also can bring freight vehicles into areas with pedestrian and nonfreight vehicular activity.
Railroads have invested significant private and public resources to improve their facilities to expand capacity to meet the growing freight demand, and to reduce bottlenecks and chokepoints. Furthermore, railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration espouse a strong safety culture, in adherence with regulatory requirements and good business practices.
In one meeting in Florida, however, roundtable participants highlighted the issue of increased freight rail activity that is plaguing one community, effectively creating a barrier between students and their school, and inducing habitually dangerous crossing habits. Similar to what is now known about the negative effects of building highways through cities, some communities that grew up around the railroads are suffering from divided neighborhoods and impaired road-based commerce and bicycle and pedestrian access as a result of longer trains and more frequent trains creating temporary but recurring barriers. Economic expansion can have unanticipated impacts, as demonstrated by the safety and community connectivity issues in that Florida town. This is one example of the potential risks deriving from otherwise positive freight growth.
Fortunately, these risks can be anticipated, calculated, and mitigated. Although railroads can be a more efficient alternative to long-haul trucking on highways and are a valuable element in economic growth, competitiveness, and the resiliency of supply chains, anticipated growth in rail activity should trigger a proactive response from planners and railroads to work together to address potential conflicts. Improved partnerships among local and State governments and the private sector can lead to effective solutions developed, designed, funded, and implemented to provide continued access to ladders of opportunity and safe passage for citizens across the country. At the conclusion of the roundtable meetings, FHWA will provide the public with case studies and solutions from across the country to help leaders in the transportation industry address similar challenges using the information and experience of their peers.
Regardless of the mode of transportation, communities must not be forced to accept unsafe conditions, reduced environmental health, or a lower quality of life as a result of impediments in a community’s access to jobs, local business activity, health care, and other daily needs. Detrimental effects from the growth of a vital freight transportation mode are not in anyone’s best interest.
The FAST Act affords a number of opportunities to tackle issues in all the major freight modes. For example, improved data collection and modeling supported by FAST Act funding can help identify hotspots where community needs and freight activity are not successfully blending. The FAST Act’s emphasis on multistakeholder advisory committees engaging with States, and the new requirement for State freight plans that give consideration to national multimodal transportation goals, will help focus attention and prioritize these areas for mutually beneficial solutions. The availability of multiple sources of funding for improvements to highway/railway grade crossings, highway bottlenecks, and port concerns can help leverage public and private sector investments to reduce community and environmental impacts.
Truck Parking Challenges And Solutions
In another exchange with transportation leaders, USDOT officials discovered that further work may be needed to address the demand for truck parking along major freight corridors. Across the Nation, truckers have experienced difficulty finding safe and available parking as part of the long- and short-haul movement of goods. Some truckers need better access to information about parking spaces close to their destinations, while others are looking for services that make it possible for them to do their jobs and have a rewarding quality of life that will keep them in the trucking industry, where worker retention has plagued employers.
Under the FAST Act, Federal-aid funding eligibility for truck parking projects has expanded to include both the National Highway Freight Program and FASTLANE. Whether future increases in trucking activity and corresponding truck parking demand are generated by larger ships calling at U.S. ports or by time-of-day restrictions affecting deliveries to cities, intermodal facilities, and last-mile retail operations, the need for a better supply of truck parking and services is real and growing.
The development of solutions should be accomplished through partnerships between State and local governments and the business community, including the freight industry and shippers. Through the creation of a National Coalition on Truck Parking, USDOT and a core membership of organizations representing States, truck stop owners, trucking companies and drivers, and law enforcement are working together in national and regional meetings to identify specific needs for truck parking. Four regional meetings are being held during 2016, engaging a diverse set of coalition partners and broadening the participation to include others who are committed to solving this multifaceted issue.
Individual States can lead future efforts through their freight advisory committees, as well as multistate or corridor coalitions. The issue can also be addressed through proactive efforts of major freight generators like ports. Strategies can include adding parking spaces at existing facilities or constructing parking areas at new locations; making safety improvements to existing facilities; allowing flexible reuse of existing surface parking; improving technologies for monitoring and sharing information about truck parking; using advanced technology appointment systems to avoid truck queuing at freight facilities; increasing the use of on-dock rail or marine highway services that provide direct access to maritime ports by trains and barges (thus relieving the demand for some long-haul trucking services); and instituting operational changes to shift trucking to offpeak hours.
This collaboration can have a multiplier effect, benefiting all the parties touched by truck operators and the goods they carry. The people who live in, work in, or visit the United States stand to benefit from safe and efficient truck travel. So does the workforce that carries the goods to the people who continue to consume the food, wear the clothing, or use the products that could in the future arrive more economically, efficiently, and safely. FHWA and USDOT and their partners across the industry can help lift communities to a better quality of life. The same effect can be realized in rail-active or port communities when they work together with transportation providers to seek solutions.
The comprehensive focus on communication, planning, measurement, and investment invigorated by the FAST Act will start to yield benefits as early as this year, as States and MPOs collaborate with committed stakeholders across the industry to make changes that will support and strengthen the U.S. freight economy.
Caitlin Hughes Rayman is director of FHWA’s Office of Freight Management and Operations, where she leads the delivery of Federal funding and programs, the regulation of truck sizes and weights, the development of freight policy, technical assistance, and research. She has a master’s degree in public administration from the George Washington University and a B.A. from the University of Vermont.
For more information on funding that applies to the National Highway Freight Program network, see www.ops.fhwa.dot.gov/fastact/index.htm. Additional guidance on the use of these funds is available at FHWA’s FAST Act Web site at www.fhwa.dot.gov/fastact or contact Caitlin Rayman at 202–493–0457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.