Freight Transportation:

National Policy and Strategies Can Help Improve Freight Mobility

GAO-08-287: Published: Jan 7, 2008. Publicly Released: Jan 7, 2008.

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Continued development and efficient performance of the nation's freight transportation system is vital to maintaining a strong U.S. economy and sustaining our nation's competitive position in the global economy. Yet, increasing congestion on our nation's roads and rail lines threatens to undermine the efficiency of our freight transportation system. Although the Department of Transportation (DOT) has taken some steps to enhance freight mobility, there is growing concern that additional action is needed. To assist the Congress in enhancing national freight mobility, GAO reviewed (1) factors that contribute to constrained freight mobility and their effects in areas with nationally significant freight flows, and (2) approaches to address freight mobility in those areas and the challenges decision makers face in implementing those approaches. GAO analyzed freight transportation data and interviewed stakeholders in four areas with large freight flows.

A number of factors contribute to constrained freight mobility and, together, these factors have significant adverse impacts. First, growing freight transportation demand decreases freight mobility. Volumes of goods shipped by trucks and railroads, for example, are projected to increase by 98 percent and 88 percent, respectively, by 2035. Second, the capacity of our transportation system is constrained by other factors, including the cost of surmounting geographic barriers, such as mountain ranges and waterways, population density, and urban land-use development patterns. Third, freight mobility is limited by inefficiencies in how infrastructure is used, such as poor road signal timing and prices paid by users that do not align with infrastructure costs, resulting in congestion. The widening gap between the volumes of goods and available system capacity is increasing transportation congestion. Constrained freight mobility has adverse economic costs for consumers, shippers, and carriers, as well as in urban centers where congestion exacerbates environmental pollution and increases health risks, such as respiratory illnesses. Although freight transportation stakeholders have advanced projects and proposals to enhance freight mobility by building new infrastructure and increasing system efficiency, public planners face several challenges when advancing freight improvement projects. These challenges include competition from nonfreight projects for public funds and community support in the planning process, lack of coordination among various government entities and private sector stakeholders, and limited or restricted availability of public funds available for freight transportation. Compounding these challenges facing state and local transportation planners is that the federal government is not well positioned to enhance freight mobility due to the absence of a clear federal strategy and role for freight transportation, an outmoded federal approach to transportation planning and funding, and the unsustainability of planned federal transportation funding. When combined, these challenges and factors hinder the ability of public sector agencies to effectively address freight mobility and highlight the need to reassess the appropriate federal role and strategy in developing, selecting, and funding transportation investments, including those for freight transportation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: GAO contacted DOT on various occasions about the status of this recommendation, and a DOT official noted that the recommendation was receiving active consideration in the Administration's thinking on the next surface transportation authorization bill. Once Congress passes a surface transportation authorization bill, GAO will review the bill and determine if the recommendation was addressed.

    Recommendation: In order to improve freight mobility by more clearly defining the federal role in the freight transportation network and to begin to align federal investments with economically significant national benefits, the Secretary of Transportation should develop with Congress and public and private sector stakeholders a comprehensive national strategy for freight transportation. This national strategy should include defining the federal role and national interests in freight transportation, including economically-based and objective criteria to identify areas of national significance for freight transportation and to determine whether federal funds are required in those areas.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: GAO contacted DOT on various occasions about the status of this recommendation, and a DOT official noted that the recommendation was receiving active consideration in the Administration's thinking on the next surface transportation authorization bill. Once Congress passes a surface transportation authorization bill, GAO will review the bill and determine if the recommendation was addressed.

    Recommendation: In order to improve freight mobility by more clearly defining the federal role in the freight transportation network and to begin to align federal investments with economically significant national benefits, the Secretary of Transportation should develop with Congress and public and private sector stakeholders a comprehensive national strategy for freight transportation. This national strategy should include establishing the roles of regional, state, and local governments, as well as the private sector.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: GAO contacted DOT on various occasions about the status of this recommendation, and a DOT official noted that the recommendation was receiving active consideration in the Administration's thinking on the next surface transportation authorization bill. Once Congress passes a surface transportation authorization bill, GAO will review the bill and determine if the recommendation was addressed.

    Recommendation: In order to improve freight mobility by more clearly defining the federal role in the freight transportation network and to begin to align federal investments with economically significant national benefits, the Secretary of Transportation should develop with Congress and public and private sector stakeholders a comprehensive national strategy for freight transportation. This national strategy should include using new or existing federal funding sources and mechanisms to support a targeted, cost-effective, and sustainable federal role in freight transportation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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