Approaches to Mitigate Freight Congestion

GAO-09-163R: Published: Nov 20, 2008. Publicly Released: Nov 20, 2008.

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Phillip R. Herr
(202) 512-8509


Office of Public Affairs
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Strong productivity gains in the U.S. economy hinge, in part, on transportation networks working efficiently. Continued development and efficient management of the nation's freight transportation system--especially highways and rail lines that connect international gateways and intermodal facilities to retailers, producers, and consumers--are important to sustaining the nation's competitive position in the global economy. However, the increasing congestion on the transportation system poses a threat to the efficient flow of the nation's goods and has strained the system in some locations. Moreover, recent growth in international trade has placed even greater pressures on ports, border crossings, and distribution hubs. Congestion delays that significantly constrain freight mobility in these areas could result in increased economic costs for the nation. The Federal Highway Administration has calculated that delays caused by highway bottlenecks cost the trucking industry alone more than $8 billion a year. Recognizing that freight congestion has been well-defined and studied, Congress asked us to research technologies and projects currently in place or in development that could improve freight mobility, including low-cost approaches. In doing our work, we learned that the National Cooperative Freight Research Program (NCFRP) is currently conducting a comprehensive research project to identify low-cost and quickly implementable approaches to address freight mobility constraints. To not duplicate NCFRP's efforts by conducting a similar review, we limited the scope of our work. Therefore, as agreed with your staff, this report provides high-level information on (1) the ongoing research project being conducted by NCFRP, and (2) examples of implemented or planned technologies and projects to improve freight mobility that fall under the two broad approaches we identified in our earlier report--efforts to increase the efficient use of existing infrastructure and to add new capacity to the transportation network.

The NCFRP study is focused on identifying low-cost and quickly implementable approaches to address freight mobility constraints. The research group conducting the study intends to capture information on low-cost improvements that have been or are in the process of being implemented, the costs that were associated with and the impact of the improvements, and any lessons learned. The information collected will be used to develop a searchable database that will allow users to find low-cost and quickly implementable solutions to their particular freight mobility issue, based on defined criteria. The research group issued its first interim report in May 2008, which outlined the study's scope and methodology, and plans to complete its next interim report by January 2009. We have previously reported on two broad approaches for improving freight mobility and examples of technologies and projects being implemented or studied that fall under those two approaches. During this engagement, we identified other technologies and projects that could help to mitigate congestion, but we did not attempt to determine if these technologies and projects would be considered low-cost. The first broad approach is to increase the efficient use of existing infrastructure. For example, some ports use radio frequency identification technology to electronically identify and track container contents. With such tags, cranes equipped with readers that remove cargo from ships can read the container's allowing the terminal operator to better stage containers. The second broad approach is to add new capacity to the transportation network, such as building new facilities, roads, and bridges. For example, DOT is looking at the possibility of improving freight movement through developing truck-only lanes, which are lanes dedicated for trucks that are physically separated from passenger vehicles. We provided DOT with a draft of this report for its review and comment. In response, DOT suggested technical corrections, which we incorporated into the report, as appropriate. Further, DOT noted that while the draft report addresses several practical approaches for mitigating freight congestion, it does not discuss expanding the use of waterborne transportation, or "America's Marine Highway" which some DOT officials believe has the potential to mitigate surface freight transportation congestion.

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