The U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) recently released the draft Primary Freight Network (PFN) in the Federal Register. As mentioned in a previous Policy Update, the PFN is part of the National Freight Network (NFN) that the U.S. DOT must establish under the MAP-21 federal transportation bill. The purpose of the NFN is to strategically direct resources to highway corridors most critical to freight. The National Freight Network is composed of the PFN, parts of the Interstate network not included in the PFN, and critical rural freight corridors.

The PFN will consist of 27,000 centerline miles of roadway that are most essential to freight movement. CMAP's previous Policy Update outlines the factors used to determine the PFN and highlights several broad shortcomings. The draft PFN contains 1,512.25 miles in Illinois, including 379.15 miles in the seven-county CMAP region. More specifically, the draft network in Illinois includes much of the state's Interstate mileage, along with several arterial and intermodal connector facilities, most of which are located in the Chicago region.

U.S. DOT has requested comments on the PFN by January 17, 2014. CMAP is particularly interested in providing comments on the potential uses for the National Freight Network, how to integrate the National Freight Network into a broader multimodal system, and methods to designate critical urban freight corridors. 

In light of these national developments in freight policy, CMAP has laid out three guiding principles on how to use and improve the PFN. Discussed as follows, these principles will provide the foundation for our PFN comments to U.S. DOT. In addition, CMAP is coordinating with other major metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) across the nation to articulate the common freight challenges faced by major metropolitan regions. The objective of this effort is to advocate for a more robust treatment of freight in the next federal transportation reauthorization bill.

Principle 1: Expand PFN to Include a Multimodal Freight Network

Freight movement encompasses a complex network of truck, rail, water, air, and transfers via intermodal connectors. However, MAP-21 directs U.S. DOT to limit its scope to the highway network. This narrow focus severely constrains the utility of the PFN, particularly in metropolitan areas. For example, while 67 percent of goods movement in the Chicago region occurs via truck, six of the seven Class I railroads have major terminals in the region, and Chicago remains the only location to directly link the Mississippi and Great Lakes waterways. Further, O'Hare International Airport and Midway International Airport comprise the second busiest air cargo gateway in the U.S. by value of shipments.   

Principle 2: Capture Urban Freight Corridors

The draft PFN fails to capture the complex nature of goods movement in metropolitan regions, particularly the "first and last mile."  This is partly due to limitations of using national data, which lack the granularity necessary to be useful at the metropolitan level, as well as the restrictive mileage cap. Additionally, differently weighting the various "freight factors," the criteria and data sources used to develop the network, could have better reflected the importance of urban freight corridors. 

Intermodal connectors provide some of the most important roadway links between the national highway system and intermodal facilities. The CMAP region contains 18 active intermodal terminals, yet many of the routes to these critical terminals are not represented in the PFN. Looking ahead, MPOs should coordinate with the U.S. DOT to designate NFN and PFN routes within metropolitan areas to better capture urban freight corridors.

Principle 3: Utilize for Performance-Based Funding

Identifying the roadways that are critical to goods movement is an important first step towards establishing a national freight agenda as advocated for in GO TO 2040. However, the objective behind the PFN has not been identified, nor has the PFN been attached to a funding source.

As discussed previously, the PFN needs to be expanded to include multimodal freight movement and better capture metropolitan freight movement. Should these elements be addressed so that the PFN reflects the dynamics of metropolitan freight movements, the PFN could be used in a performance-based funding system to prioritize projects.

With only 27,000 miles of freight roadways across the nation to be identified as critical to goods movement, it is vital that the projects selected for funding have the greatest impact in improving freight efficiency. As put forth in GO TO 2040, performance-based funding encourages a more transparent, credible, and accountable process for programming road and highway projects. Because transportation dollars are scarce, it is especially important to ensure that they are spent wisely and transparently.