On Sunday, October 18, 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation released the draft National Freight Strategic Plan (NFSP), as required by MAP-21, the current federal transportation policy.  The draft is designed to assess recent trends and future challenges facing the freight transportation system and calls for dedicated federal funding of freight improvements.  Additionally, the draft includes a map depicting major trade gateways and freight corridors across four major freight modes: highway, rail, water, and air.  U.S. DOT is currently accepting comments on the NFSP through an online portal.

Major components of the plan

The draft is broadly organized in two parts: (1) major freight transportation trends and challenges and (2) strategies to address these challenges, which are further organized around infrastructure, institutional, and financial challenges.  For the former, the plan recognizes the difficulty in planning for and funding freight improvements as well as the large number of both public- and private-sector stakeholders with responsibilities over components of the freight system.  It also recognizes the potential impact of rapid technological advancements on the freight system, upcoming workforce issues, and the importance of a safe and secure freight system.

For the latter, the plan recommends various strategies to address these challenges, as summarized below: 

  • The plan calls for projects to reduce congestion; improve safety, security, and resilience; promote intermodal connectivity; and mitigate local community impacts.  While many of these improvements may require capital projects, some may be achieved through improved operation of the transportation system.  Additionally, the plan calls for the identification of major trade gateways, which it accomplishes through a draft Multimodal Freight Network map, which is described in more detail below.
  • Other strategies call for better coordination among agencies, particularly in the environmental review and permitting processes; these strategies also recognize the need for access to new, detailed data to improve planning and decision-making.  Many would continue and formalize ongoing federal efforts like the "Every Day Counts" initiative, a program aimed at speeding up delivery of highway projects. 
  • The plan calls for dedicated federal funding sources of freight improvements (although it does not identify specific revenues) and for continued use of existing discretionary funding and financing sources to support freight projects.

Many of the plan's themes dovetail with recent federal policy efforts such as the recommendations of the U.S. DOT National Freight Advisory Committee, the recommendations of the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee‘s Panel on 21st Century Freight Transportation, and the Administration's proposed freight policies in the GROW AMERICA reauthorization proposal.

Proposed Multimodal Freight Network (MFN)

As required by MAP-21, on Friday, October 23, 2015, U.S. DOT released the final Primary Freight Network (PFN), a highway-only network capped at 27,000 miles.  Under MAP-21, the PFN would be the main component of a larger National Freight Network, supplemented by state-designated "critical rural freight corridors" and any remaining Interstate mileage.  The final PFN does not include any route modifications from the original draft, which U.S. DOT released in November 2013.  At that time, CMAP submitted comments recommending improvements to that draft, including three principles to guide the definition and use of the PFN:

  1. Expand the PFN from a highway-only network to a multimodal network.
  2. Capture critical urban freight corridors in the PFN, along with the existing rural freight corridors.
  3. Use the PFN as part of a performance-based funding system for freight projects. 

Recognizing the limitations of the MAP-21 Primary Freight Network, U.S. DOT includes a proposed MFN map in its NFSP.  In contrast to the PFN, the MFN goes beyond a highway-only system to include significant rail, water, and air cargo facilities across the country (pipelines are not included in the map).  An interactive map of the national draft MFN is available, as are state-by-state maps and tables.  Appendix D of the NFSP includes the methodology used to select facilities on the MFN.

MFN Components

The highway network includes a total of some 65,000 miles, which comprises the entire Interstate system, non-Interstate routes that carry at least 3,000 trucks each day, all National Highway System (NHS) intermodal freight connectors, the entire Strategic National Network (STRAHNET) of highways critical to the U.S. military, international border crossings that carry at least 75,000 trucks each year, and other segments included for network connectivity.   The MFN includes some 2,400 miles in Illinois or about 4 percent of the national total.  CMAP estimates that Illinois contains about 5 percent of the nation's NHS intermodal freight connectors.

The rail network includes some 50,000 route-miles of rail and comprises all intermodal rail routes, all Strategic rail Corridor Network (STRACNET) rail routes critical to the U.S. military, and high- and moderate-volume routes for bulk and general merchandise shipments.  Of this amount, about 7,200 route-miles, or some 15 percent, are located in Illinois.  Further, the network includes 53 of the largest intermodal and/or bulk railyard facilities in the country, including five facilities in Illinois, four of which are located in the Chicago area. 

The water network includes the corridors in America's Marine Highway Program, chief among them the Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois river corridors and the Great Lakes corridors.  All of these major corridors touch Illinois, and the network identifies over 1,300 miles of waterways in the state.  Further, the MFN includes the largest 78 ports in the United States for container and/or dry and break-bulk movements, including one port facility in Chicago and two in downstate Illinois. 

The air network includes 56 of the nation's largest airports, as measured by two different sources for air-cargo data.  Two of these 56 airports are located in Illinois -- Chicago O'Hare International Airport and Rockford International Airport. 

Three CMAP Policy Updates profiled recent trends in the region's freight rail, water, and air cargo activity.

Reauthorization context

The release of the draft NFSP and draft MFN comes at a key time in the larger transportation reauthorization process, with both the recent U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives bills including new freight provisions.  Both bills are generally consistent with the priorities of the NFSP, for the first time including dedicated funding for freight and calling for multimodal freight planning and policy.  The Senate bill would include both formula and competitive programs for freight, while the House bill would include only a competitive program.

Both bills would also require U.S. DOT to designate priority freight networks, generally focusing on highways.  The Senate bill, the DRIVE Act, would largely echo the existing MAP-21 policy, creating a Primary Highway Freight Network along with both rural and urban freight corridors.  The DRIVE Act includes provisions granting metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) like CMAP a role in designating these routes, and the bill also ties the new freight funds to improvements on the freight network.  In contrast, the House bill would take a more limited role, largely merging the existing highway-only PFN with any remaining Interstate facilities and would not tie new freight funds to the national freight network.  It would, however, direct U.S. DOT to establish a new National Multimodal Freight Network, somewhat similar to the components of the draft MFN included in the NFSP.

Looking Ahead

Broadly speaking, the draft National Freight Strategic Plan and its MFN map are consistent with CMAP's freight policy positions -- they take a multimodal perspective, call for dedicated funding for freight improvements, and recognize the need for collaborative planning.  Unfortunately, these documents are rather short on detail for critical topics, principally, the ability of the national freight program to strategically direct resources to the nation's most critical freight facilities. 

The NFSP does not specify a source for its dedicated freight funds, nor does it recommend apportioning those funds according to performance metrics.  This is especially concerning given that the formula program proposed in the DRIVE Act would apportion its freight funds according to a state's overall share of federal highway funds, rather than its share of freight volumes or congestion.  Other recent proposals, such as H.R. 1308, the Economy in Motion Act, would rely on more performance-based criteria to make these apportionments.  As discussed in material presented to the CMAP Freight Committee, Illinois would receive an estimated 4.67 percent of H.R. 1308's freight formula program, comparing favorably to the state's current MAP-21 apportionment of 3.63 percent.

Further, while the MFN map is an improvement over the PFN, it still fails to provide any indication of critical pinchpoints or bottlenecks in the system, particularly those of national significance.  Simply adopting thousands of miles of existing networks -- such as the entire Interstate system -- provides little indication of national priorities for freight movement. 

Finally, the NFSP's emphasis on collaborative planning is admirable, but would benefit from more concrete examples of how to implement this recommendation.  For example, MPOs could have a formal role in designating urban freight facilities into the national networks, developing state and national freight plans, or in programming new freight funds, perhaps tying those funds to a national freight network.  Further, the NFSP could clarify the roles and responsibilities of state freight advisory committees, such as the Illinois State Freight Advisory Committee, to ensure their work is productive and meaningful.

The draft National Freight Strategic Plan and its MFN represent a place to continue the national conversation on freight policy, facilitating more detailed discussions on a reasonable source of any future dedicated freight funding as well as a more performance-based approach to allocating these funds to the places of greatest need.  Improving upon the draft's shortcomings would go far to clarify the federal role in steering scarce funds to true national priorities.