In some respects, the two-year transportation reauthorization bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), represents a significant departure from previous federal transportation bills and does more to recognize freight needs than the law's antecedents. Since the adoption of SAFETEA-LU, the last major transportation reauthorization bill, stakeholders across the country have worked to raise support for freight issues on Capitol Hill, and MAP-21 includes a more expansive role for freight than in past bills. However, the freight provisions of MAP-21 do not fully meet the call for a national vision on goods movement as prioritized in CMAP's transportation reauthorization principles and GO TO 2040.

MAP-21 misses an opportunity to address freight needs through a truly comprehensive and adequately funded multi-modal approach. Any national freight policy should treat all modes strategically and support the full range of transportation infrastructure, including freight rail. Furthermore, the legislation does not explicitly establish a formal role for metropolitan regions in the development of the recommended state freight plans.

Nevertheless, MAP-21 expands federal and state involvement in freight across five broad areas:

  • National Freight Policy
  • State Freight Plans and Advisory Committees
  • Prioritization of Projects to Improve Freight Movement
  • Transportation Investment Data and Planning Tools
  • Projects of National and Regional Significance

This policy update discusses each of these areas in turn and focuses on next steps for CMAP and its partners.

National Freight Policy
MAP-21 calls for strategic investment in transportation and operational improvements with a goal of improved system performance. It charges the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) with establishing a two-part National Freight Network – one network being "primary," the other "rural." The Primary Freight Network will feature the 27,000 centerline miles of existing roadways that are most essential to freight movement. It is within U.S. DOT's discretion to designate a further 3,000 miles of existing and future un-built roadways under the Primary Freight Network. The National Freight Network will serve as a target for state investment. However, the Network does not include freight rail, which carries about 42 percent of the nation's ton-miles (a unit that measures a ton of freight moving one mile). U.S. DOT will establish performance measures for the Network. Within one year after rulemaking, states must develop and report on state performance targets for freight movement. While performance targets have not been designated yet, they may include anticipated changes in hourly delay, average travel speeds, and the condition of connectors between the interstate system and intermodal terminals. Every two years, U.S. DOT will prepare a report on the performance of the national freight system.

U.S. DOT will also develop a national freight strategic plan that will periodically review the condition and performance of the National Freight Network and will identify "significant" bottlenecks over a 20-year forecast horizon. The plan must also outline best practices and strategies for improving the system. It is not clear from the statute's language if "best practices" or "strategies" will include new sources of revenue. Without addressing financing, the plan may miss an opportunity to define specific investment priorities in a constrained revenue environment, thereby undermining its value as a strategic document.

State Freight Plans and Advisory Committees
Under MAP-21, states are encouraged to form Freight Advisory Committees to provide ongoing input on freight issues and assist in the subsequent development of state freight plans. These plans should contain near- and long-term planning activities and investments to support freight movement. Specifically, proposed projects must be identified in a state freight plan in order to be eligible for the increased federal share of funding for projects.

MAP-21 recommends that Advisory Committees include a "cross-section of public and private sector freight stakeholders, including representatives of ports, shippers, carriers, freight-related associations, the freight industry workforce, the transportation department of the state and local governments." CMAP would like to see metropolitan regions, including metropolitan planning organizations, specifically included in the state-level freight planning processes.

Prioritization of Projects to Improve Freight Movement
MAP-21 provides some incentive to use federal aid dollars for freight improvements by raising the potential federal participation rate to 95 percent for freight projects on the Interstate Highway System (IHS) as compared to a participation rate of 90 percent for other projects. The federal share for non-IHS freight projects was raised from 80 percent to 90 percent. Eligible projects include construction and rehabilitation on highways, operational improvements, installation of intelligent transportation systems, and a variety of other improvements. While railway-specific improvements are not specifically included in this program, grade-separation projects and improvements to freight intermodal connectors are eligible.

Transportation Investment Data and Planning Tools
Given the intensive scope of activities required to create and implement a national freight policy and voluntary state programs, demand for high-quality data will be significant. MAP-21 calls upon U.S. DOT to improve existing tools and develop new tools for assessing the performance of the freight system, including benefit-cost analysis methodologies and other tools for evaluating projects through the lenses of safety, economic competitiveness, environmental sustainability, and system conditions. Additionally, U.S. DOT will work with other federal agencies to reduce freight data gaps and deficiencies and improve forecasts of freight transportation demand.

Projects of National and Regional Significance
The Projects of National and Regional Significance (PNRS) program will continue to fund projects that provide long-term congestion relief and safety improvements to the transportation system and thus remains a viable funding source for large freight-oriented projects. The program was funded for $500 million in FY 2013 but not at all in FY 2014 under MAP-21 and is subject to appropriations from the General Revenue Fund.

Next Steps
While MAP-21 advances the federal role in freight, the Chicago metropolitan area must continue to advocate for more fully developed programs and policies. Overall, MAP-21 misses an opportunity to address freight needs through a truly comprehensive and adequately funded multi-modal approach. Specifically, freight rail needs to be incorporated into the National Freight Network. While U.S. DOT will identify 27,000 centerline miles of roadway as the Primary Freight Network, there is no similar program identified for railway track.

The legislation also fails to establish a formal role for metropolitan regions in the development of recommended state freight plans. These plans should include substantial coordination with regional plans like GO TO 2040, as well as with plans from neighboring states, to better address the needs of metropolitan regions. With improved regional coordination, MAP-21 can accommodate CMAP's reauthorization principle that investment decisions be based on regional priorities.

CMAP and its partners locally and across the U.S. have a clear role to play in contributing to a national freight policy. Addressing these concerns and finding potential solutions through the development of a national freight legislative program will help create a more complete and efficient freight network and can inform the next federal transportation bill.