Report: National freight plan needs more focus on community impact

Updated Oct 2, 2014

The Government Accountability Office has recommended clarifying the federal government’s role in the National Freight Strategic Plan and the purpose of the nation’s primary freight network.

Sen. John Walsh (D-MT) had requested the agency review freight flow trends and how communities can lessen freight-related congestion. The 2012 two-year surface transportation reauthorization requires the Department of Transportation establish a national freight plan and a national freight network.

On Sept. 8, President Barack Obama signed a continuance of the 2012 law after Congress approved extending it through May 31.

The reauthorization does not specify national freight policy address impact on communities, but its goals include reducing congestion and the environmental impact of freight movement. It also mandates that the national plan identify best practices to mitigate the impact of freight movement on communities.

The GAO’s Sept. 26 report recommended the DOT clarify the federal role for decreasing local freight-related congestion in the national plan and include strategy for improving data.

Other recommendations include that Congress consider clarifying the purpose of the primary freight network and revise the mileage limit requirement set by the omnibus bill.

The 2012 law requires the department complete a Transportation Conditions and Performance Report by Oct. 1, which will later feed into the National Freight Strategic Plan.

The GAO recommended the DOT develop strategy to improve related data because currently does not sufficiently distinguish between classes of trucks for 2007-2012.

Also, while the DOT’s freight analysis framework provides a comprehensive picture of the freight movement, it is partly dependent on Census data and additional department analysis. The result is updates only every five years and a more than two-year lag in reporting. The next freight analysis update will use 2012 data and be released in 2015.

The GAO used data provided by the American Trucking Associations and the American Transportation Research Institute. The latter is the ATA’s research component and has performs some studies through Federal Highway Administration partnerships.

The reauthorization also directs the department to establish a highway primary freight network. It mandates this network be comprised of 27,000 centerline miles on existing roads that are considered the most critical to freight movement.

Although the DOT and other freight stakeholders have expressed concern over this limit, the reasoning behind it is unclear. The mandate will result in is a network lacking certain roads where the national freight movement affects local traffic congestion, such as port-to-freeway connectors.

In its draft network, the department identified more than 41,000 centerline miles it says would be necessary to establish an efficient primary freight network. The DOT currently is reviewing public comment received on that proposal.

Last April, department officials released a surface transportation reauthorization proposal that would establish a multimodal national freight network with a defined purpose and no mileage limit.