Freight Transportation:

Developing National Strategy Would Benefit from Added Focus on Community Congestion Impacts

GAO-14-740: Published: Sep 19, 2014. Publicly Released: Sep 26, 2014.

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What GAO Found

Recent trends in freight flows, if they continue as expected, may exacerbate congestion issues in communities, particularly along certain corridors. As of 2012, the latest year for which data were available, national freight rail and truck traffic had approached levels of 2007 prior to the economic recession. Certain trends related to specific commodities have affected rail flows, including increases in domestic crude oil production. A key negative impact of increasing freight flows is congestion at highway-rail grade crossings, where road traffic must wait to cross the tracks when trains are passing. For example, a Miami-area study found that rail crossings in the area caused delays of roughly 235,000 person-hours per year at a cost of $2.4 million. Although several communities we visited had documented long-standing concerns over freight-related traffic congestion, state and local stakeholders we met with had varying levels of quantified information regarding the extent of the impacts or costs to the community. For example, in contrast to the Miami study, another study we reviewed included some information on train counts, but did not document hours of delay or any costs associated with such delays.

The Department of Transportation's (DOT) efforts to implement the freight-related provisions of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) are still underway but so far do not fully consider freight-related traffic congestion. MAP-21's freight policy goals do not explicitly include addressing freight-related traffic congestion, but MAP-21 requires DOT to identify best practices to mitigate the impacts of freight movement on communities in a national freight strategic plan, which is due in October 2015. MAP-21's requirements and DOT's efforts so far do not fully establish the federal role or identify goals, objectives, or performance measures in this area, which may limit the usefulness of the National Freight Strategic Plan . For example:

DOT issued for comment a required draft primary freight network, but according to DOT and other stakeholders, MAP-21's lack of defined purpose for the primary freight network and mileage limit of 27,000 miles hampered DOT's ability to include in this draft network some types of roads where local traffic congestion impacts of national freight movements are often experienced, such as roads connecting ports to freeways. The significance of the 27,000 mileage limitation is not clear. DOT released a surface transportation reauthorization proposal in April 2014 that proposed establishing a multimodal national freight network with a defined purpose and with no mileage limit.

DOT is currently developing the Freight Transportation Conditions and Performance Report , which is to support the National Freight Strategic Plan . For this and other documents, DOT established a broad goal to reduce freight-related community impacts. However, DOT did not identify clear goals, objectives, or measures related to freight-related traffic congestion in local communities due to a lack of reliable national data. Thus, a clear federal role has not been established. High-quality data are essential to supporting sound planning and decision-making. Without reliable national data, it will be difficult for DOT to establish goals and objectives and to define the extent of freight-related traffic congestion and measure performance.

Why GAO Did This Study

Projected increases in the transport of freight by rail and truck may produce economic benefits but also increase traffic congestion in communities. MAP-21, which contains a number of provisions designed to enhance freight mobility, is currently before Congress for reauthorization. GAO was asked to review trends in freight flows and any related traffic-congestion impacts.

This report addresses among other things: (1) recent changes in U.S. rail and truck freight flows and the extent to which related traffic congestion is reported to impact communities, and (2) the extent to which DOT's efforts to implement MAP-21 address freight-related traffic congestion in communities. GAO analyzed rail data from 2007 through 2012 and highway data from 2010 and 2012 and reviewed 24 freight-related traffic congestion mitigation projects at 12 locations selected on the basis of different geographical locations and sizes. The results are not generalizable. GAO also reviewed federal laws and interviewed freight stakeholders.

What GAO Recommends

Congress should consider clarifying the purpose of the primary freight network and, as relevant to this purpose, revising the mileage limit requirement.

DOT should clarify the federal role for mitigating local freight-related congestion in the National Freight Strategic Plan , including a strategy for improving needed data. DOT concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Susan Fleming at (202) 512-4431 or flemings@gao.gov.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Projected increases in the transport of freight by rail and truck may produce economic benefits, but also increase freight-related traffic congestion in communities that results in delays and congested road conditions for passenger and emergency response vehicles. MAP-21 contained a number of provisions designed to enhance freight mobility, was before Congress for reauthorization. In 2014, GAO reported that DOT had taken some steps to address local impact issues in its efforts to implement MAP-21's freight provisions, but had not fully integrated local impact issues, including freight-related traffic congestion. Specifically, as part of establishing a national freight network, MAP-21 required DOT to establish a highway primary freight network consisting of not more than 27,000 centerline miles of existing roadways that are most critical to the movement of freight. In November 2013, DOT issued its draft primary freight network for comment. However, DOT and other national and state freight stakeholders that commented on the draft network raised concerns that the lack of a defined purpose for the network and the mileage limit requirement--that it be limited to 27,000 centerline miles--had resulted in a network that omits the types of roads where local traffic congestion impacts of national freight movements are often experienced. The lack of a clearly defined purpose for the highway primary freight network, combined with the mileage limit imposed, resulted in a draft primary freight network that omitted certain types of freight-related roads, such as roads connecting ports to freeways, while including others, such as major Interstate freeways with heavy truck volumes, without a clear understanding that this was the network Congress intended or of the ramifications of these choices. As a result, GAO recommended that in reauthorizing the federal highway program, Congress consider establishing a clear purpose for the national freight network and primary freight network that incorporates the inclusion of the types of roads where communities are likely to experience significant freight-related traffic congestion, and, as relevant to this purpose, consider revising certain requirements such as the mileage limit of 27,000 miles or changing the requirement from a centerline to a corridor approach. In 2015, Congress passed the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act reauthorizing the federal highway program, and among other things, repealed the requirement that DOT designate a primary freight network with a maximum of 27,000 centerline miles of existing roadways that are most critical to the movement of freight. In addition, the FAST Act directed the FHWA Administrator to establish a National Highway Freight Network (NHFN) to strategically direct Federal resources and policies toward improved performance of highway portions of the U.S. freight transportation system and to designate a Primary Highway Freight System (PHFS) which totals 41,518 miles. Through FAST, Congress established a clear purpose for the national freight network and revising the mileage limit requirement of the primary freight network so that more freight-significant road segments are incorporatedincluding those where community impacts of freight are often experienced.

    Matter: In reauthorizing the federal highway program, Congress should consider establishing a clear purpose for the national freight network and primary freight network that incorporates inclusion of the types of roads where communities are likely to experience significant freight-related traffic congestion, and, as relevant to this purpose, consider revising certain requirements such as the mileage limit of 27,000 miles or changing the requirement from a centerline to a corridor approach.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: While vital to our nation's economy, freight movements can contribute to freight-related traffic congestion in communities that results, among other things, in delays and congested road conditions for passenger and emergency response vehicles. In 2014, GAO reported that MAP-21 requires DOT to encourage each state to develop a freight advisory committee and a state freight plan. In 2012, DOT issued interim guidance to states on developing state freight plans. DOT outlined in its interim guidance to states that it plans to rely significantly on state freight plans in preparing the National Freight Strategic Plan. DOT's interim guidance on state freight plans listed "reducing adverse environmental and community impacts of the freight transportation system" as one of six national goals and generally discussed in the guidance that states should develop measures of conditions and performance for all six goals. However, DOT's interim guidance to states on state freight plans did not identify specific goals for addressing freight-related congestion in local communities, and did not provide details on how states could consider documenting or addressing community impacts such as freight-related traffic congestion. According to DOT officials, the interim guidance did not include this information because MAP-21 does not require state freight plans to consider community impacts, and because states are not required to adopt federal goals or prepare a state freight plan. However, GAO concluded that without specific guidance related to how to consider community impacts amongst other freight priorities, it might be difficult for those states with concerns related to the local traffic congestion impacts of freight to fully incorporate these concerns and issues in their state freight plans. In addition, GAO found data limitations at the state or local level that reduced state or local officials' ability to quantify rail-related freight impacts on local communities. Without reliable data on the community impacts of freight, measuring the extent of freight-related traffic congestion and tracking the progress of efforts to mitigate the impacts will be difficult to do. However, DOT's interim guidance on state freight plans did not provide specific suggestions related to improving this type of data. Therefore, GAO recommended that DOT, in its final guidance on state freight plans, incorporate additional information to help states define and prioritize local community impacts of national freight movements, including traffic-congestion impacts, and to establish what data could be consistently collected and analyzed in order to prioritize impacts of freight on local traffic congestion. In 2018, GAO confirmed that DOT's final guidance, published in the federal register in October 2016, incorporates information to help states define and prioritize local community impacts of national freight movements and identifies data sources to assist in collecting and analyzing data to prioritize impacts of freight on local traffic congestion. For example, according to the guidance, states could assess freight effects on community connectivity and cohesion and impacts of longer and more frequent trains at roadway/rail grade crossings, among other things, as part of their identification of significant freight system issues. Moreover, the guidance identifies strategies to help states improve information related to community congestion impacts, lists some specific data sources for information related to community impacts of freight, and identifies a potential source of funding for mitigating community congestion impacts caused by railroad grade crossings. As a result, states now have the guidance they need to better incorporate information on these issues in their state freight plans. This, in turn, could help decisionmakers understand the extent of freight-related congestion and prioritize projects to mitigate such impacts at both the state and national level.

    Recommendation: In order to clarify the federal role related to freight-related local traffic congestion, in implementing MAP-21 and any subsequent reauthorization, in its final guidance on state freight plans, Secretary of Transportation should incorporate additional information to help states define and prioritize local community impacts of national freight movements, including traffic-congestion impacts, and to establish what data could be consistently collected and analyzed in order to prioritize impacts of freight on local traffic congestion.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: DOT concurred with this recommendation. To fully implement this recommendation, DOT should complete and issue a National Freight Strategic Plan. As part of the development of the National Freight Strategic Plan, DOT should articulate the federal role, objectives, and goals in mitigating local congestion caused by national freight movements. DOT stated that they are continuing work on the National Freight Strategic Plan and believe it will be released in early 2019.

    Recommendation: In order to clarify the federal role related to freight-related local traffic congestion, in implementing MAP-21 and any subsequent reauthorization, the Secretary of Transportation should include in the National Freight Strategic Plan a written statement articulating the federal role in freight-related local congestion impacts, by clearly identifying potential objectives and goals (under the general area DOT has established for the Freight Transportation Conditions and Performance Report of reducing adverse environmental and community impacts) for mitigating local congestion caused by national freight movements and the type of role federal and state stakeholders could play in achieving each objective and goal, and including a written strategy for improving the availability of national data needed to quantify, assess, and establish measures on freight trends and impacts on local traffic congestion.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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