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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-17-003     Date:  March/April 2017
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-17-003
Issue No: Vol. 80 No. 5
Date: March/April 2017


The Times They Are Definitely Changing

Focus on Freight: Article 1

by Chandra Bondzie

Together, USDOT and FHWA are encouraging a multimodal approach for analyzing freight movements throughout the United States and across its borders.

Shipping today requires a complex network of air, rail, marine, pipeline, and highway transport. That’s why the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration are emphasizing a focus on multimodalism.
Shipping today requires a complex network of air, rail, marine, pipeline, and highway transport. That’s why the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration are emphasizing a focus on multimodalism.

To foster the Nation’s economic growth and competitiveness, the U.S. Department of Transportation is leading the way to creating a more efficient freight transportation system. What is afoot at USDOT is nothing short of transformational.

The Nation’s freight transportation system consists of a vast network of roads, railways, navigable channels, airways, and pipelines connecting hundreds of ports, airports, and intermodal facilities. This network supports the U.S.’s supply chain-based economy and is integral to the movement of raw materials and finished products throughout the country and across the Nation’s borders.

In the past, the transportation community in many instances viewed and assessed freight issues from the perspective of one mode. But now, to improve freight planning and investment, USDOT is changing the way it assesses the movement of goods to determine how well the transportation system is meeting the needs of the Nation. Instead of separate modes, the focus is more on the movement of freight along supply chains via multiple modes of transportation. By fostering multimodal strategic planning and investment, USDOT’s goal is to improve the efficiency of the system, support global connectivity, and strengthen the Nation’s economic competitiveness.

To implement this approach, USDOT is actively crafting new multimodal transportation policies and programs across its agencies, as well as targeting investment to explicitly multimodal freight programs that have the potential to produce significant national and regional benefits. To encourage a multimodal perspective, USDOT is investing strategically to enable the movement of goods and people more efficiently, and at the same time is addressing the impacts of freight movement on communities. Recent program developments enhancing this work at USDOT include new multimodal funding opportunities, multimodal research, and performance measures for the transportation system.

National Highway Freight Network
Map of the United States, including the mainland and Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, showing the Primary Highway Freight System and the remainder of the interstate system that is not part of the Primary Highway Freight System. Also shown are the border crossings into Canada and Mexico.

The new approach is also underway at the Federal Highway Administration. Within FHWA, the Office of Freight Management and Operations is developing several new initiatives to advance the national multimodal freight policy goals, including new approaches for collecting and analyzing freight data. The freight office has a key role at FHWA in implementing funding programs that can be used to deliver multimodal projects, including primary responsibility for the agency’s role in implementing the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants and oversight of the National Highway Freight Program. The office also administers the new Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-Term Achievement of National Efficiencies (FASTLANE) grant program.

“The FHWA freight office is promoting efficient and seamless freight flows on the U.S. transportation system and across U.S. borders to accomplish a smooth and secure movement of freight,” said former Federal Highway Administrator Gregory G. Nadeau. “But FHWA cannot do it alone. The economic prosperity and competitiveness of America is inherently dependent on the efficiency and performance of a multimodal system.”

Supply Chains: Critical Components

A supply chain is an end-to-end path of freight moves to deliver raw materials to a manufacturer or finished products to a marketplace. A supply chain may be a trip accomplished by a single truck move within a specific metropolitan area, State, or region. Or it might be a long trip accomplished by a combination of truck, rail, ship, airplane, or pipeline freight moves spanning regions and continents. The country’s supply chains consist of complex logistical moves that depend on modes of transportation that are global, intricate, and multiple.

Information on how supply chains perform from the perspectives of shippers, carriers, and receivers is critical to knowing whether the supply chains are working or failing. That information is, in turn, essential to determining whether and where public investment might improve the performance of the freight system and support economic competitiveness and growth.

Encouraging the Multimodal Approach: MAP-21

The multimodal approach can be said to have originated in the 1990s. The Federal surface transportation program governed by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) exerted a major influence on the performance and development of intermodal freight transportation in the United States. This program was one of several Federal public works programs that provide freight facilities. Other programs build, maintain, and operate the inland waterways; provide aid to airports; maintain the air traffic control system; and maintain harbors. The Federal highway program in ISTEA was the largest of these programs and the most important for freight in the sense that trucking is the largest freight mode in terms of value of services provided. ISTEA also was important for intermodal freight because the legislation was the vehicle for declaring the new Federal policy concern with intermodalism.

Two decades later, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act, passed in 2012, set in motion a critical process for communicating, planning, and ultimately funding important freight projects and began to foster a multimodal perspective.

The freight goals in MAP-21 focused on improving the condition and performance of the National Freight Network to expand competition in the global economy. To support these goals, Congress directed USDOT to develop a National Freight Strategic Plan. That strategic plan calls for the Nation to invest in the efficiency of the movement of people and goods, while utilizing existing capacity across all transportation modes.

MAP-21 also directed USDOT to develop the first highway-based national freight network. This network, incorporating a core set of roadways to be designated as the Primary Freight Network, was intended to assist States in strategically directing resources toward improved system performance for the efficient movement of freight on the highway portion of the Nation’s freight transportation system.

This Primary Freight Network included the National Highway System, freight intermodal connectors, and aerotropolis transportation systems. An aerotropolis is an urban plan in which the design, infrastructure, and economy are centered on an airport to speed the connectivity of goods and people.

To reflect the requirements under MAP-21, FHWA used a data-driven methodology to identify approximately 27,000 centerline miles (43,500 kilometers) in the Primary Freight Network. The methodology included assessing network connectivity and freight tonnage volumes on roadways.

At the time of release of a draft Primary Freight Network in November 2013, however, FHWA recognized the limitations of a highway-focused National Freight Network. Comments from the public indicated that the highway Primary Freight Network was not sufficient in its approach and that a more comprehensive and multimodal network was necessary to assess and improve the freight system. This public feedback on the Primary Freight Network spurred activity by USDOT modal administrations to develop a multimodal approach, in part to support the drafting of the National Freight Strategic Plan.

Although specific commodities are likely to be moved on a particular mode or series of modes, a complex multimodal system is required to carry the growing volume of bulk and high-velocity, high-value goods. As identified in an October 2015 Federal Register Notice relating to a Multimodal Freight Network drafted by FHWA, freight in the United States travels over an extensive network of 985,000 miles (1.6 million kilometers) of Federal-aid highways; 141,000 miles (227,000 kilometers) of railroads; 28,000 miles (45,000 kilometers) of waterways; and more than 2.6 million miles (4.2 million kilometers) of pipelines. There are more than 13,000 airports in the United States, with approximately 500 serving commercial operations, and over 5,000 coastal, Great Lakes, and inland waterway facilities moving cargo.

The Multimodal Mandate: The FAST Act

The FHWA freight office developed a multimodal network alternative to the highway-limited Primary Freight Network and opened this new draft for comment in October 2015. The public comments ultimately led to the more comprehensive and multimodal freight network proposed by FHWA and subsequently identified as the draft Multimodal Freight Network.

The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of December 4, 2015, repealed the prior networks created under MAP-21 and established a National Highway Freight Network. Further, the FAST Act linked this network in part to eligibility under the National Highway Freight Program formula funding and the FASTLANE grant program in order to encourage strategic investments in freight infrastructure.

The FAST Act provides $4.5 billion in grant funds and $6.3 billion in formula funds over 5 years. Although subject to certain caps, the following organizations can use a portion of these funds for intermodal projects: State or multistate transportation agencies, metropolitan planning organizations that represent areas with populations over 200,000, local governments, political subdivisions, special purpose districts or public authorities with transportation functions, tribal governments, Federal land management agencies, or multistate or multijurisdictional entities. In fact, USDOT has announced the first round of recipients of FASTLANE grants, and the grant awards are in line with the goals of the Department’s draft National Freight Strategic Plan and are multimodal in scope.

National Freight Strategic Plan

The FAST Act also required the development of a new National Freight Strategic Plan to implement the goals of the new national multimodal freight policy, as well as a National Multimodal Freight Network.The new strategic plan will address the conditions and performance of the multimodal freight system, identify strategies and best practices to improve intermodal connectivity and performance of the national freight system, and mitigate the impacts of freight movement on communities.

The Maritime Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, Federal Aviation Administration, and FHWA are collaborating with USDOT’s Office of the Secretary to develop a final National Multimodal Freight Network that can serve as the transportation planning support piece for the National Freight Strategic Plan. The network is intended to (1) assist States in strategically directing resources toward improved system performance for the efficient movement of freight, (2) inform freight transportation planning, (3) assist in the prioritization of Federal investments, and (4)assess and support Federal investments to achieve the goals of the national multimodal freight policy. A draft National Freight Strategic Plan is available for review at www.transportation.gov/freight/NFSP.

Performance Measures

Performance measures are important because measuring results from activities that have been identified as program goals provides a mechanism to track the performance of a program and identify needs and opportunities. Decisionmaking that is based on agreed-upon performance measures leads to improved performance against stated desired outcomes, is quantifiable and replicable, and can be used comparatively to assess across program areas. Performance measures therefore can be used across a range of management functions to improve results, set goals and objectives, and allocate resources.

Multimodal Freight Network—Draft Representation
Map of the United States, including the mainland, Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, showing border crossings, airports, ports, rail connectors, railways, highways, marine highways, marine links to the U.S. mainland, and urbanized areas.

The U.S. transportation community is starting to implement broader use of performance measures to document the progress and success of its programs. A significant part of the reforms made by MAP-21 included transitioning to a performance-based program, including establishing national performance goals for Federal-aid highway programs. MAP-21 called for development of a freight performance measure for the interstate highway system, an effort that is currently progressing through the rulemaking process.

The FAST Act continues the overall performance management approach, within which States invest resources in projects that collectively will make progress toward national goals. Transportation performance measures will enable USDOT to measure the effectiveness of new freight multimodal programs and help State, local, and regional governments better understand the movement of goods on their transportation systems.

Canada’s Multimodal Research

Various operating administrations, FHWA, and other Federal agencies are working with Transport Canada, the Canadian counterpart to USDOT, to develop a tool to understand the multimodal performance of goods movement within the United States and across the borders to Canada and Mexico.

Transport Canada has been a leader in an innovative approach to measuring freight performance. The Canadian approach, known as the fluidity concept, refers to how well goods move throughout the transportation system in North America, including the end-to-end transit times of freight. The fluidity concept incorporates multimodal data on freight movement in key corridors and reveals congestion points and trends. The fluidity system has been used as a tool for economic development and transportation improvements at the national, provincial, and local government levels.

Transport Canada has used the multimodal data to identify the most needed operational investments and has helped Canada realize opportunities to improve its environment as well as its economy. Fluidity analysis includes measuring the reliability and variability of transit times for cargo, identifying bottlenecks and impediments to cargo movements, pinpointing immediate and residual impacts of disruptions to the transportation network, estimating border wait times for trucks, and measuring carbon footprints. Examples of fluidity analysis include a geospatial analysis of southbound truck border wait times at the U.S. Peace Bridge/Canadian Fort Erie crossing and also an analysis of container dwell time versus historical port throughput at the Port of Vancouver, WA.

Photos. A triplex showing an airplane, truck, and container ship.
The three freight transportation modes portrayed here—air, highway, and marine—symbolize USDOT’s new multimodal perspective, which is helping to support an economically competitive and resilient system for the movement of goods.

The Canadian effort is also applicable to provincial and local governments, as the tool provides the opportunity to focus both broadly at the total system level and specifically on congestion points. Canada has begun to include selected U.S. locations in the fluidity analysis, reflecting the importance of considering freight flows throughout North America and the significance to regional and global economies.

FHWA Multimodal Research

To build on the Canadian approach, FHWA is leading efforts in the United States to implement a fluidity concept of freight performance measurement and analysis. Improved information on the performance of supply chains has the potential to benefit a wide range of freight stakeholders and to stimulate new private sector services and tools to plan and optimize freight trips throughout the freight transportation network.

To implement this research, FHWA engaged partners from Canada and Mexico, other operating administrations, Federal agencies, academic institutions, the Transportation Research Board, and the private sector to discuss and design a path forward for implementing fluidity analysis in the United States. In a series of workshops, experts presented information related to the applications of fluidity, supply chains, performance measurement of freight movement, and other areas of consideration.

During the initial phase of fluidity research, which began in 2014 and ended in late 2015, FHWA and its partners examined examples of supply chains from several sectors: automobile manufacturing, food products, retail commerce, agriculture, and electronics. The FHWA researchers selected case studies to cover the major U.S. geographic regions and to profile supply chains of varying lengths and modes.

The result was a research path leading to further exploration, under which FHWA and its partners are building on the previous work to launch an indepth study to support the application of freight fluidity research and analysis to multimodal supply chains. This next phase is expected to start in early 2017 and will evaluate freight performance measurement through a multimodal, trip-based perspective that will best support State and regional freight transportation planning.

In this future work, FHWA will establish national monitoring of freight fluidity and support State and regional implementation of fluidity measurement. The primary focus for the national view will be on U.S. freight flows, but FHWA intends to coordinate with Canada and Mexico to explore a North American application as well.

“Multimodal research and analysis are top priorities for freight entities within USDOT operating administrations and among Federal economic, environmental, agricultural, energy, and other agencies,” said former Administrator Nadeau.

Fluidity research is a part of FHWA’s efforts to meet the requirements in MAP-21 and the FAST Act to develop multimodal performance measures and freight policy in order to support statewide and regional freight planning through the ability to identify bottlenecks in the freight network.

With the implementation of the FAST Act over the next few years and the dedicated funding that will be spent on freight-related projects, the importance of freight in U.S. society and the information needed to better manage and inform policy decisions will continue to grow and be even more relevant.

The transformation to the new multimodal world has just begun. Stay tuned for future articles on the new era of freight transportation.

Chandra Bondzie is a transportation specialist in the FHWA Office of Freight Management and Operations. She has a master’s degree in geography from Oklahoma State University and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin.

For more information, contact Chandra Bondzie at 202–366–9083 or chandra.bondzie@dot.gov.



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