Freight Transportation:

Strategies Needed to Address Planning and Financing Limitations

GAO-04-165: Published: Dec 19, 2003. Publicly Released: Jan 20, 2004.

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The strong productivity gains in the U.S. economy have hinged in part on transportation networks working more efficiently. The nation's ports, which handle 95 percent of overseas freight tonnage, are a key link in this network, and efficient intermodal links between ship, rail, and highways are vital to continued productivity gains. GAO was asked to address (1) the challenges to freight mobility, (2) the limitations key stakeholders have encountered in addressing these challenges, and (3) strategies that may aid decision makers in enhancing freight mobility. GAO's work was based on a synthesis of previous studies and a review of conditions at 10 ports and surrounding areas that handle almost two-thirds of all containers moving in and out of the country.

The major challenges to freight mobility share a common theme--congestion. National studies point to such problems as overcrowded highways and freight-specific "chokepoints" that stifle effective intermodal transfer of cargoes. All 10 ports GAO studied faced similar congestionrelated problems. For example, many of the ports are in dense urban areas, limiting the ability to expand rail yards, roadways, and other infrastructure. Increased port security measures may exacerbate congestion if new controls drastically slow the movement of goods. Stakeholders encounter two main limitations in addressing freight mobility challenges. The first relates to the limited visibility that freight projects receive in the process for planning and prioritizing how transportation dollars should be spent. The planning process often lacks a comprehensive evaluation approach, such as a cost-benefit framework that might result in the implementation of freight improvements to better ensure that systemwide, multimodal solutions are considered and adopted where appropriate. The second relates to limitations of federal funding programs, which tend to dedicate funds to a single mode of transportation or a nonfreight purpose. Two strategies may help address these limitations. One is to ensure that transportation planning cuts across modes and individual jurisdictions, includes coordination with freight stakeholders representing an intermodal perspective, and includes sound analytical approaches and meaningful data needed to compare the benefits of freight and passenger projects. The second is to develop a multifaceted funding approach that includes improved access of freight projects to existing funding sources and support for programs that emphasize better use of existing infrastructure. If integrated in these strategies, three principles could better assure that the freight infrastructure system provides the level of capacity and performance that makes the greatest contribution to the nation's economic well-being. These principles include promoting efficiency by embracing a "user pay" approach, establishing performance measures, and aligning incentives for planning agencies to adopt best practices.

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To encourage the use of sound evaluation and data collection efforts among state and local transportation planners, the Secretary of Transportation should develop evaluation approaches for state and local planners to use in making freight-related and other transportation investment decisions and actively work with transportation planners to achieve implementation of these approaches. In developing these approaches, DOT should promote the incorporation of key elements of effective planning, including systematic cost-benefit analyses, evaluation of noncapital alternatives, inclusion of external benefits (e.g., congestion and pollution costs), and routine performance of retrospective evaluations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) developed and delivered a Freight Professional Development Program that includes an intermodal approach to advancing freight. The program is intended to help create awareness of freight issues among the public sector, improve evaluation tools for planning and decision-making, improve freight operations, and engage private sector stakeholders in project development. It is also intended to facilitate multi-jurisdictional approaches to solving freight issues and foster intermodal approaches to advancing freight productivity. For example, the program included a "Talking Freight" seminar series via net conference on topics such as freight data and modeling, short sea shipping, and linking freight to economic development. In addition, FHWA began a new training course "Integrating Freight in the Transportation Planning Process".

    Recommendation: To encourage the use of sound evaluation and data collection efforts among state and local transportation planners, the Secretary of Transportation should facilitate the collection of freight-relevant data that would allow state and local planners to develop and use a broad range of evaluation methods and techniques, such as demand forecasts, modal diversion forecasts, estimates of effects of proposed investments on congestion and pollution, and other factors, as they make transportation investment choices.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency has responded to the recommendation and it is closed. The agency said: "The Department's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) developed and continues to improve and deliver their Freight Professional Development (FPD) Program. This program pursues a multi/intermodal approach to advancing freight transportation through four main functions: Training, Education, Technical Assistance, and a Resource Library. The program provides technical assistance through a monthly "Talking Freight" seminar series delivered via web-based videoconference on many diverse topics, such as freight data and modeling, short sea shipping, statewide freight planning considerations, and linking freight to economic development. In addition, a Peer-to-Peer exchange will be available in FY06. The suite of training courses and workshops offered have expanded beyond the initial offerings of "Integrating Freight in the Transportation Planning Process", and "Multimodal Freight Forecasting", to "Engaging the Private Sector in Freight Planning", "Freight Data Made Simple", "Advanced Planning", "Freight and the Environment", and a workshop on "Financing Multimodal Freight Improvements". The Resource Library is growing significantly and an effort to catalogue noteworthy practices in performance metrics will be underway in FY06. The FPD program will help to create institutional awareness of freight issues at the local, state, and corridor levels, and improve evaluation tools for planning and decision making. It will also facilitate multi-jurisdictional approaches to solving freight issues and foster intermodal approaches to advancing freight productivity and security. Finally it will engage private sector stakeholders in the project development process, improve freight operations in a shared passenger/freight environment, and encourage consistent yet adaptable applications of data collection and analysis methodologies for state DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations (MPO).

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