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Infrastructure Technology Institute

Freight moves america: The public interest in
freight infrastructure

While freight is carried by private companies, there is a broad public interest in the performance of freight transportation and the condition of the infrastructure that supports it, because efficient freight movement is critical to the US economy and our international competitiveness.

The freight system and its infrastructure are extraordinarily diverse, including – in order of decreasing annual ton-miles carried – railroads, trucks and highways, pipelines, inland waterways, and air transport.
The public sector is an important partner for all of these freight modes. US and state departments of transportation are responsible for the road network that not only carries truck freight but also connects to intermodal terminals and ports serving railroads and barge transport. The US Army Corps of Engineers builds and maintains the inland waterways system, and the Federal Aviation Administration operates the air traffic control system, while state and local authorities own and operate airports. There are strong federal roles in supporting research and development, setting standards, and regulating the safety of freight transportation.

The truck and rail industries have become highly collaborative, particularly for container freight, since rail can be more efficient (though not always faster) than trucks for long distance shipping. Labor, energy, emissions, and crash costs can be lower when containers are shifted to rail for the line haul portion of trips.

The flexibility of some commodities to be moved either by truck or rail is important to the public because there can be advantages to shifting some truck flows to rail, not only because of the aforementioned efficiencies of rail, but also because of the relatively high costs to the infrastructure of carrying heavy trucks: the marginal cost of infrastructure damage of an 80,000 pound truck can be more than ten times the cost of carrying a light vehicle.1

The Virginia Department of Transportation has been studying the diversion of trucks to railroads in the I-81 corridor in order to reduce structural damage to pavements and bridges, crash costs, and roadway congestion.2 The Heartland Corridor project linking the Port of Norfolk and the Midwest (partly supported under SAFETEA-LU) is increasing vertical clearance under bridges and in tunnels to permit double stack container rail service. Chicago’s Project CREATE, the Alameda Corridor in Los Angeles, the Reno Trench, and the Kansas City Flyover each focus on alleviating rail congestion and its impacts on the road network. These public-private collaborations illustrate the public interest in private infrastructure, the basis for directing some public funds into private facilities both to protect the highway system and its operations and to achieve a more efficient, integrated freight transportation system.

Ensuring the integrity of freight infrastructure is important to the nation as well as private facility owners. The value of critical freight infrastructure components is substantial no matter who owns them. Failures of the publicly-owned waterways infrastructure, for example, can have large impacts, as illustrated in the interruptions to international trade when the Port of New Orleans was closed because of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Highway bottlenecks motivate the use of other modes, perhaps achieved through infrastructure investments that promote long term reallocation of freight flows among modes.

Strong public-private collaborations to ensure the integrity of the national freight system are important for several reasons:

• They can support systematic planning to achieve the most efficient networks and operations – good highway connections to intermodal terminals, facilities to support economic development, desirable diversion of trucks to rail, and infrastructure investments that mitigate the impacts of freight operations on communities.

• They can help us prepare for service interruptions, guiding rapid response, measuring diversions, and organizing rapid service restoration. They can promote joint investments in materials, designs and technologies to benefit all modes.

• They can guide the deployment of public and private resources for the benefit of the nation. Chicago’s project CREATE, a much-discussed topic at the Third Annual William O. Lipinski Symposium, described on page 6, is pooling public and private money to produce such benefits.

Protecting the capacity and reliability of the US freight system in all of its elements requires resources, information, technologies, and a shared public and private commitment to act together.

Money is always an issue. Public money will flow only when there is an understanding of the needs for and benefits of investments in the freight system. It is easier for the private sector to understand needs and benefits, but private money can come only when industry returns on investment exceed the cost of capital.

Information on infrastructure performance and condition – both trend and real time measures – is essential for spotting needs and directing investments. Advances in structural health monitoring, a specialty of ITI, will help meet this need. But there is a broader need to ensure federal and state data programs to provide the perspective on freight system performance that is essential for good decision-making. The Transportation Research Board (TRB) policy study “Strategies for Improved Passenger and Freight Travel Data,”3 now underway, as well as the May 19-20, 2010 TRB Workshop “Toward Better Freight Transportation Data: A Research Road Map,” can be expected to set key directions for national data programs.

Research and innovation are needed to ensure the performance and condition of our freight infrastructure. As reported at the November 2009 RITA-TRB Spotlight Conference on Developing a Research Agenda for Transportation Infrastructure Preservation and Renewal,4 described later in this newsletter, there are important barriers to innovation arising from outdated standards, an aging workforce, and not-invented-here attitudes. There are important shared needs for infrastructure research that cut across highways, railroads, and rail transit.

A public-private commitment to support the freight infrastructure can begin with the efforts of AASHTO5, the US Chamber of Commerce6, two Congressionally-mandated policy studies on transportation finance7, and others that together document the needs. The challenge remains to convince the public and our leadership that freight moves America and infrastructure carries the freight.

1. Joseph Bryan, Glen Weisbrod, Carl Martland, and Wilbur Smith Associates, Rail Freight Solutions to Roadway Congestion—Final Report and Guidebook,
National Cooperative Highway Research Program Report 586, 2007.

2. Cambridge Systematics, Feasibility Plan for Maximum Truck to Rail Diversion in Virginia’s I-81 Corridor,
Draft Final Report, Prepared for the Commonwealth of Virginia, December 2009

3. Committee on Strategies for Improved Passenger and Freight Travel Data:


5. AASHTO, Transportation - Invest in our Future: America’s Freight Challenge, 2007


7. National Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission Report,, and The National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission Report