US DOT dusts off national freight strategic plan

A long overdue assessment of the ability of multimodal transportation networks within the United States to handle future freight demand has been opened once again for public comment.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued on Dec. 27 a “request for information” for a National Freight Strategic Plan (NFSP), originally called for by the Obama administration in 2012. The original NFSP never materialized, but it was subsequently required under the following highway spending reauthorization known as the FAST Act in 2015. A comment period for a draft of the plan, opened by DOT in early 2016, was supposed to result in an official plan by the end of that year, but a final NFSP has yet to appear.

With the FAST Act set to expire by the end of September 2020, the Trump administration is attempting to put in place an NFSP that includes updated information from state and local governments, private owners and operators, trade groups and shippers.

To highlight the problem, the agency pointed out that the U.S. moves approximately 18 billion tons of freight every year across all transportation modes. The agency estimates that amount will increase by 44% by 2045 (compared to 2015), which will increasingly strain infrastructure, particularly highways.

“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 and beneficial cargo owners,” the agency stated.

It noted that prior to 2005 crude oil typically moved by pipeline. Since then, however, rail shipments of crude have increased significantly. In addition, increased liquefied natural gas movements “will require more interplay between pipelines, rail and tanker/barge movements,” DOT stated. The agency also estimated air cargo transportation to be the fastest-growing freight mode with annual tonnage growth of 4.3%.

“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.”

In addition to commenting on 11 components defined under the FAST Act, DOT is asking the industry to address the following 10 questions:

  • What are the three most important challenges facing the U.S. freight transportation system?
  • 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?
  • How should DOT measure freight transportation system performance?
  • What industry freight-specific knowledge is critical to understanding supply chains and how economic trends impact freight logistics and cargo movements? Are there technological innovations, such as Blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT), that DOT should know about?
  • 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?
  • What approach should the federal government use to invest in the multimodal freight system?
  • What barriers (such as regulatory, technological, institutional, statutory) are critical to freight efficiency that DOT should better understand?
  • What information is critical to understanding the unique infrastructure and operational freight impacts faced by local communities?
  • How would you define a bottleneck in your industry?
  • What else should DOT consider or do to improve freight transportation in the U.S.?

Comments on the plan are due by Feb. 10.