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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - May/June 1998

Intermodal Connectors: NHS Catches Up to The 1990s

by David Smallen


When Kedzie Avenue in Chicago was built during the early part of this century, it seemed adequate for its job. Running through a residential neighborhood in South Chicago, the curving city street was used by commuters going downtown and by shoppers. Truck traffic was light.

With no major design improvements, the Kedzie Avenue that was built for a residential neighborhood was not up to the task of handling the truck traffic of the 1990s. The 2,000 truck trips generated every day by the Corwith Rail Yard were more than antiquated Kedzie Avenue could handle. The aging signal systems simply did not allow enough of the lined-up trucks to make left turns into the yard or to leave it.

Kedzie Avenue, where traffic had once flowed smoothly and easily, became in the 1990s a major bottleneck in the middle of Chicago, the nation's freight hub - "a choke point" in the words of Joanie Casey, executive director of the Intermodal Association of North America.

But Kedzie Avenue is not the only choke point. Across the country, similar situations developed where passenger and freight traffic grew to exceed the capacity of the transportation facilities. The increase in traffic has put the most severe strain on "intermodal connectors," the links where different modes of transportation meet and where passengers and freight change to different forms of travel.

"There are 163,000 miles [260,000 kilometers] in the National Highway System [NHS]. There are 2,000 miles [3,200 kilometers] of connectors that we believe severely constrain the capacity of this great highway system," Federal Highway Administrator Kenneth R. Wykle said. "Freight flows rapidly across our NHS system but then comes to a virtual stop as vehicles come off exit ramps out to congested, narrow streets with multiple stoplights leading to our seaports, airports, rail terminals and stations, and major manufacturing areas. If we focus on less than 2 percent of the system, we can significantly increase productivity."

Intermodal connectors were neglected for many years as construction of the Interstate Highway System was the focus of the transportation program. That focus resulted in numerous situations where, just as in Chicago, traffic moves rapidly along interstate highways, but getting to and from nearby terminals can be "slow going."

Wykle said his travels during his career in the military gave him a "personal interest" in intermodal connectors. "I saw the condition of the connections to the interstates. Not only were they deteriorating, but in many cases, they were inadequate to handle the volume of traffic. They were slowing down the flow into and out of major facilities," he said.

 corwithAt the Corwith Yard, containerized cargo is trasferred to/from trucks and rail cars.

The administrator said there were four locations that "brought it home to me." He cited inadequate connections to the Bayonne, N.J., marine terminal; congestion caused by rail grade crossings at the port of Norfolk, Va.; lengthy lines of trucks backed up at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif.; and the crumbling roads in Detroit.

"Examples like these caused me to think our intermodal connectors should be improved," he said.

Casey said, "We can get things across the ocean, but the inland movement is a problem. Access to terminals is critical. If we don't have adequate access, our international trade will suffer in some way, shape, or form."

In recent years, planners at all levels - federal, state, and local - have begun to recognize the need to include intermodal connections in their planning programs.

These connectors serve major ports, airports, public transit stations, Amtrak stations, intercity bus terminals, rail-highway terminals, ferry terminals, pipeline terminals, and multipurpose passenger terminals.

The shift in focus on the federal level began with the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), which created not only NHS but also an Office of Intermodalism within the Department of Transportation (DOT). ISTEA also includes concerns about intermodal transportation and facilities throughout the law, including in the planning section.

ISTEA declared, "It is the policy of the United States to develop a National Intermodal Transportation System that is economically efficient, environmentally sound, provides the foundation for the Nation to compete in the global economy and will move people and goods in an energy efficient manner." It said the system "shall consist of all forms of transportation in a unified, interconnected manner."

"This language suggests nothing less than visionary approaches to the planning, funding, and delivery of transportation programs and services," said C. Michael Walton, the chairman of the Transportation Research Board's Steering Committee for Intermodal Planning Issues Conference, in 1993.

Intermodalism was written into NHS when it was created by ISTEA.

"The purpose of the National Highway System is to provide an interconnected system of principal arterial routes which will serve major population centers, international border crossings, ports, airports, public transportation facilities, and other major travel destinations; meet defense requirements; and serve interstate and interregional travel," according to ISTEA.

Before ISTEA, there was little direction from the federal level for transportation planners to consider intermodal needs. However, the ISTEA policy mandate meant that connections to intermodal facilities would become a major focus of NHS, which carries 42 percent of the nation's highway traffic.

The movement from ISTEA's "visionary" language to the actual inclusion of intermodal connectors in NHS was a six-year effort with some changes in direction. Collecting data on intermodal connectors is unknown and uncharted territory for most transportation planners, and there was little effort to collect intermodal data before ISTEA.

kedzieTo accomodate the more than 25,000 vehicles including 2,000 trucks, that use Kedzie Avenue daily, the road was widened by 1.2 meters, and traffic signals were modernized and sychronized. After ISTEA was signed into law on Dec. 18, 1991, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) instructed the states to work with metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to identify intermodal terminals that warranted connection with NHS. Despite the interest in intermodalism demonstrated by ISTEA, implementation of the FHWA directive by the states proved to be difficult. The states had widely varying approaches to the new concept of intermodalism, and as a result, there was a lack of consistency in the identification of connectors by the states.

When the proposed NHS was submitted to Congress in late 1993, DOT officials decided that more work was needed to complete the identification of the connections to terminals. In November 1994, FHWA began the process of developing criteria that would produce consistency among the states' submissions.

FHWA officials reached out for suggestions for the process of identifying intermodal connectors. In addition to requesting guidance from the state transportation agencies, FHWA consulted with the other DOT modal administrations; DOT's Office of Intermodalism; and transportation organizations such as Amtrak, the American Association of Port Authorities, the American Public Transit Association, the American Trucking Associations, Greyhound Lines Inc., and the Intermodal Association of North America.

In April 1995, at the end of a five-month process, FHWA released the guidelines to be used by the states for identifying NHS intermodal connectors. The FHWA guidelines consisted of primary criteria; statistical thresholds representing national transportation objectives for passenger volume, freight volume, or daily vehicular traffic; and secondary criteria, subjective factors that represented state transportation planning objectives.

For inclusion in NHS, connectors were required to meet these primary requirements:

  • Commercial aviation airports: 250,000 annual passengers, 100 trucks per day in each direction, or 100,000 tons (almost 91,000 metric tons or megagrams) per year using connecting highways for cargo.
  • Ports: More than 50,000 annual TEUs (20-foot [6-meter] equivalent units, a measure of containerized cargo) for container ports or 500,000 tons (453,500 metric tons) per year by highway for bulk terminals or more than 100 trucks per day in each direction for either. For passengers, more than 250,000 per year or more than 1,000 per day for at least 90 days during the year.
  • Truck-rail terminals: 50,000 TEUs annually or 100 trucks per day in each direction.
  • Pipelines: 100 trucks per day in each direction.
  • Amtrak: 100,000 passengers per year, entering and leaving combined.
  • Intercity bus: 100,000 passengers per year, entering and leaving combined.
  • Public transit: Stations with more than 500 park-and-ride spaces; 5,000 daily bus or rail passengers; or major hubs that provide for the transfer of passengers among several bus routes.
  • Ferries: Interstate or international ferries with at least 90 passengers per day for at least 90 days during the year. Local ferries that meet the public transit criteria.









At major seaports, cargo from trucks and rail cars is transferred to ships and vice versa.


Secondary criteria were based on the importance of an intermodal facility within a state and the state's plans for improving access and developing the facility. The measures of significance were:

  • Handling of more than 20 percent of a state's passenger or freight volumes.
  • Identification in either the Intermodal Management System or in the state or metropolitan transportation plans and targeting for major investments to improve or expand the connector.

In this round of submissions, states not only had the specific directions from FHWA, but a coalition of 11 freight and shipping organizations banded together to form the Intermodal Freight Transportation Coalition. The coalition worked to ensure that the concept of intermodalism in ISTEA was fully implemented by the states and DOT.

"Our focus was to get attention for the connectors," said Jean Godwin, senior vice president of the American Association of Port Authorities. "When water runs out of a 16-inch [400-millimeter] pipe, you can't get it into a 4-inch [100-millimeter] pipe. Water can't flow from a large pipe into a small pipe. The intermodal connectors are that bottleneck like the small pipe."

In the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995, Congress directed FHWA to submit within 180 days a new list of connectors for approval. The connectors to be included on this list would be eligible for interim funding as part of NHS until Congress gave formal, statutory approval as part of the ISTEA reauthorization process.

Through this process, the states identified intermodal connectors covering 3,250 kilometers for inclusion in NHS. The connectors consist of links to these facilities:

  • 388 to transit stations.
  • 247 to ports.
  • 227 to airports.
  • 211 to rail terminals.
  • 99 to intercity bus terminals.
  • 71 to Amtrak stations.
  • 61 to pipeline terminals.
  • 58 to ferry terminals.
  • 43 to multimodal terminals.

FHWA is now working to compile even more information on these connectors. Shortly after assuming the administrator's post late last year, Wykle directed the Office of Program Development and the Office of Policy "to evaluate the condition and performance of the NHS connections to terminals and their related investment requirements."

Wykle described the study as an attempt "to get a fairly accurate inventory of the intermodal connectors. I hope to get an idea of the macro level of investment required to bring the connectors up to adequate standards. I hope to get a feel from the states on the general level of priority they give to the connectors and I hope to work with the states on making the investments they need."

"We don't know much about the connectors," said Thomas Weeks, FHWA's NHS team leader. "We know they are carrying a large percentage of our truck traffic. We don't know whether they are two-lane or four-lane. We don't know about major problems, whether it's clearance or the pavement or the capacity."

The Intermodal Freight Coalition asked Congress to direct FHWA to conduct a study of the connectors.

"Most of our information is anecdotal. We need an inventory, and we need the study to find out whether the states are paying attention," Casey said.

The study is projected for completion in mid-1999. The freight portion will be conducted first, to be completed by the end of the year, followed by the passenger section.

On the state and local level, the port of Portland and the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) have been moving intensively for several years to improve their intermodal connectors. Following passage of ISTEA, ODOT quickly initiated work on the required Intermodal Management System and completed it although the system was subsequently made voluntary.

"When ISTEA passed, we took it very seriously," said Dave Williams, ODOT manager of planning and development. "We did it from the get go. Our economy is very heavily trade driven. The Columbia River is an intermodal center for the breakdown of bulk cargo. We're working to keep our competitive advantages."

In a preliminary report completed last year, ODOT's Statewide Mobility Unit estimated that $121 million will be needed during the next two decades for intermodal connectors.

"We're trying to get the information we're collecting considered in the programming process," said Steve Kale, the unit's senior planner/economist. "There will be more intermodal connectors in the STIP [State Transportation Improvement Program] next year." He said ODOT has been interested in improving intermodal connectors for many years.

"We're doing more, but we were doing this sort of thing before ISTEA. It provided inspiration in terms of telling us what needs to be done and how. The port of Portland pushed us to do a lot of things we would not have done otherwise," Kale said. He cited the use of modeling to project future freight traffic as a port initiative.

"We're operating in a global marketplace, and transportation is the key ingredient," said Susie Lahsane, transportation program manager for the port of Portland. "We're providing a gateway to international and national markets, but we must pay attention to landside access."

She cited the Lombard Railroad over-crossing project as a "classic intermodal connector problem." The port and the city of Portland are planning to build an overpass on Marine Drive to link the port to Interstate 5 four kilometers away by carrying traffic over a rail line. "It's very important," she said. "Container volumes have almost tripled. The surrounding property has been developed. There is a need to deal with grade crossings, widening and signalization."

Meanwhile, in Chicago, officials have invested $4 million to upgrade Kedzie Avenue to meet the demands of constant truck traffic from Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway's Corwith Yard. They estimate that average daily traffic on Kedzie Avenue is more than 25,000 vehicles with 2,000 trucks making the trip of less than two kilometers to and from Interstate 55.

Keith Sherman, Illinois DOT chief of transportation planning, described the Corwith Yard as the best example of previous failures to consider intermodal needs.

"In older neighborhoods, it was left to the trucking companies to decide how they got there," Sherman said. "There was a lack of coordinated planning between the private sector and the communities. To get to the entrance of the Corwith Yard, you have to go through an older residential area."

"We're actually doing something about it," said Cheri Haremb, director of transportation planning for the city of Chicago. "It has been difficult to get the money because it's not part of the NHS. It's an important link between Corwith Yard and the interstate. It's an expensive project because of the level of truck traffic."

The Kedzie Avenue project includes roadway rehabilitation, widening by 1.2 meters, sewer and drainage improvements, traffic signal modernization and synchronization, lighting improvements, new trees and a new curb, and a gutter and sidewalks. Traffic signals were modernized at six locations, and a new signal was placed at the entrance to the yard. Chicago transportation officials say the improvements have eliminated the lengthy lines of trucks getting into and out of the Corwith Yard.

"Traffic moves smoothly. It's beautiful. It's unbelievable," said Jay Homedi, the Chicago Transportation Department's project manager for Kedzie Avenue. "There is no more stopping and going in the neighborhood. There is more traffic with less disruption to the neighborhood. Everybody is extremely happy."

Now, state and local officials are examining the possibility of upgrading the interchange with I-55.

As ISTEA has resulted in the acceleration of projects such as the Portland and Chicago connectors, Wykle is looking for even more action on intermodal connectors.

"We can do more from the intermodal standpoint. We should be doing what is necessary to create one complete system, door-to-door," he said.

Wykle is also seeking a new approach to improving the intermodal connectors.

"As we focus on the connectors as we move into the 21st century, we need to see how we can use technology to leverage our existing physical infrastructure. We can get more capacity and productivity out of what already exists. It's more than just building infrastructure. It's increasing productivity and efficiency," he said.

He cited Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) features such as electronic toll collection, incident management, crash avoidance systems, research into stronger pavement, and other improvements that impact on congestion and productivity.

"You don't have to build more to keep traffic moving quickly. Technology, to me, holds great potential," Wykle said.

David Smallen is the president and chief executive officer of David Smallen Associates, a consulting-writing-editing company in Washington, D.C. For 14 years, he served on Capitol Hill, starting as press secretary and then director of communications for the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation, as senior staff member of the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, and as special assistant for transportation and infrastructure issues to Rep. Borski of Pennsylvania. Before that, he was a newspaper and news service reporter. He has a bachelor's degree from Duke University, and he attended the graduate school of journalism at the University of North Carolina.