Intermodal Freight Transportation:

Combined Rail-Truck Service Offers Public Benefits, but Challenges Remain

RCED-93-16: Published: Dec 18, 1992. Publicly Released: Dec 18, 1992.

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Kenneth M. Mead
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GAO reviewed developments in intermodal freight transportation and its potential to relieve the nation's highways of some of the freight burden, focusing on: (1) the prospect of greater cooperation between the rail and trucking industries; and (2) challenges that the industries must overcome if the nation is to fully realize the potential benefits of intermodal freight transportation.

GAO found that: (1) previous problems with cargo damage were significantly reduced by improved track and new types of intermodal railcars; (2) large truckload companies have recently seen advantages in using intermodal service, such as cost savings on long hauls, handling more volume with existing tractor and driver fleets, and reducing driver turnover; (3) truck traffic to and from intermodal terminals is adding to urban congestion in some major metropolitan areas; (4) intermodal service has had limited impact on highway traffic in the eastern United States because cities are close to each other; (5) the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Office of Intermodalism could play a useful role in helping industry and local government officials to agree on plans and funding to solve intermodal transportation problems in major urban areas; (6) The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) permits greater flexibility in using trust funds and emphasizes the need for intermodal planning in solving transportation problems; and (7) none of the ISTEA major funding sections specifically authorize the use of trust funds for intermodal freight facilities.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Office of Intermodalism, through its outreach efforts, has identified opportunities for improved intermodal transportation and policy coordination and has taken a leadership role within the Department to ensure that states, localities, and private industry realize the maximum benefits from these opportunities. It has published and will be distributing a compendium of DOT activities that provide technical assistance to transportation planners. The Office is also adding two individuals with work experience in intermodal projects.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should ensure that the new Office of Intermodalism has the resources and direction to assume an active role outside DOT in addition to its coordinating role within the Department. The Office should interact with industry, state, regional, and local officials to identify intermodal problems and help achieve solutions. It should facilitate communication and encourage agreement between the various parties, help identify funding sources, and ensure that the larger public interest is also taken into account.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Office of Intermodalism, on February 9, 1993, issued policy guidance concerning ISTEA funding eligibility for rail freight intermodal facilities.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should determine whether intermodal freight facilities are eligible for federal funding under ISTEA, provided that they would relieve highway congestion and deterioration, and help improve safety and air quality. If DOT decides it cannot resolve the uncertainty over funding eligibility, the Secretary should notify Congress, in a timely manner, that a clarification of ISTEA may be necessary to resolve the funding issue.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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