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The Department of Transportation has released the first National Freight Strategic Plan, first called for by Congress back in 2012, laying out a vision for long-term investments in infrastructure, the workforce, and other essential parts of the freight system.

Every day, America’s transportation network moves more than 51 million tons of freight and energy products valued at nearly $52 billion via highways, railways, ports and inland waterways, pipelines, and airports, noted the DOT in announcing the plan.

“The growth in freight demand due to increasing use of e-commerce and global supply chains in recent years has strained our freight system, and could threaten the competitive advantage of American businesses. As these supply chains continue to spread across the world, America’s ability to compete could be limited by inadequate infrastructure and a lack of preparation for incorporating innovative technologies.”

The report identified a number of key trends:

  • Growing population and economy
  • Diversifying global supply chains
  • Rising domestic fuel production
  • Changing urban-rural dynamics
  • Increasing e-commerce
  • Advancing technology
  • Evolving workforce

Some of the key issues the report identified include truck safety, truck parking, grade crossing safety, hazardous materials, bottlenecks, congestion, resilience to disruption, data and information barriers, statutory and regulatory barriers, and the condition of highways, bridges, and inland waterways.

According to the executive summary, the NFPS supports the DOT’s strategic goals of safety, infrastructure, and innovation.

Safety

The goal is to “improve the safety, security, and resilience of the national freight system.” Strategic objectives outlined are:

  • Support the development and adoption of automation, connectivity, and other freight safety technologies
  • Modernize safety oversight and security procedures, including identifying and removing unnecessary regulations that are barriers to safe and efficient freight movement
  • Minimize the effects of fatigue and human error on freight safety
  • Reduce conflicts between passenger and freight traffic
  • Protect the freight system from natural and human-caused disasters and improve system resilience and recovery speed, including addressing cyberattacks.

Infrastructure

The goal is to “modernize freight infrastructure and operations to grow the economy, increase competitiveness, and improve quality of life.” Strategic objectives:

  • Fund targeted investments in freight capacity and national goals
  • Improve consideration of freight in transportation planning
  • Prioritize projects that improve freight intermodal connectivity, and enhance freight flows on first- and last-mile connectors and at major trade gateways
  • Develop a methodology for identifying freight bottlenecks across modes
  • Advance freight system management and operation practices
  • Stimulate job growth and economic competitiveness in rural and urban communities
  • Mitigate the impacts of freight movement on communities

Innovation

The goal: “Prepare for the future by supporting the development of data, technologies, and workforce capabilities that improve freight system performance.” Strategic objectives:

  • Support the development and adoption of automation and connectivity, including vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X) technologies
  • Support the safe deployment of unmanned aircraft systems technology – commonly known as drones
  • Streamline or eliminate regulations to improve governance, efficiency, and economic competitiveness
  • Improve freight data, modeling, and analytical tools and resources
  • Strengthen workforce professional capacity
  • Invest in freight research
  • Support regulatory frameworks that foster freight innovation

According to the DOT, the NFSP “provides a clear path to improve the safety, security, and resilience of the national freight system. It also details how we can modernize freight infrastructure and operations to grow the economy and increase competitiveness. Additionally, the NFSP lays out a plan to prepare for the future by supporting the development of data, technologies, and workforce capabilities that improve freight system performance.”

The Importance of Data

Improving the use of data is a key part of the DOT’s strategy, and the report outlines a number of near-term strategies. A sampling:

  • Expand the use of truck probe data and weigh-in-motion systems to understand sources of truck delay and the effects of truck traffic on highway and bridge infrastructure
  • Continue to develop standardized methods and tools for measuring freight congestion and identifying freight bottlenecks
  • Produce a research and data plan to advance the state-of-practice and knowledge informing commercial motor vehicle size and weight policy

Among medium- to long-term strategies (four-plus years):

  • Explore the use of crowdsourced freight data to track freight system performance and assess freight system needs in areas such as truck parking
  • Collect and share comparable data on shipping costs throughout the supply chain for different commodities and geographies
  • Develop and release an updated NFSP

A Long Time Coming

The NSFP has been in the works since Congress directed the DOT to develop one in the 2012 MAPS-21 highway bill. Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or MAP-21, signed by President Obama in July 2012, established a national freight policy and called for the creation of a National Freight Strategic Plan.

In 2013, an advisory committee was formed to work on the plan, and in July 2014, the committee made 81 recommendations to improve the performance of the nation’s freight transportation system.

The following highway spending reauthorization, known as the FAST Act, again called for the plan, and a draft of the plan was put out for comment by DOT in early 2016. Then in December 2019, the DOT published a notice in the Federal Register asking for a fresh round of input.

To learn more about the NFSP, visit transportation.gov/freight/NFSP.

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