Office of Operations Freight Management and Operations

Safety and Environmental Concerns

Freight transportation is not just an issue of throughput and congestion. The growth in freight movement has heightened public concerns about safety and the environment. The freight community must respond to these concerns or face continuing constraints on freight movement across the country.

Highways and railroads account for nearly all fatalities and injuries involving freight transportation. Most of these fatalities involve people who are not part of the freight transportation industry, such as trespassers at railroad facilities and occupants of other vehicles killed in crashes involving large trucks. Approximately 12 percent of all highway-related fatalities involve large trucks. Despite a doubling in truck miles traveled, the number of large trucks involved in crashes has remained stable or declined over the last two decades.

Air quality is a key environmental issue facing the freight transportation industry today. A recent study for FHWA shows that freight transportation accounts for approximately one-half of nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from mobile sources and 27 percent of all NOx emissions at the national level. Freight transportation accounts for 36 percent of PM-10 emissions (particulate matter 10 microns in diameter) from mobile sources, which is less than 1 percent of all U.S. PM-10 emissions (USDOT FHWA 2005b). Diesel fuel use in heavy trucks, ships, and locomotives is the main source of both NOx and PM-10 emissions from mobile sources. Initiatives to reduce diesel emissions from trucks, ships, and trains are underway.

Disposal of dredge spoil is a major challenge for maintaining or deepening channels to allow larger ships to berth. Land use and water quality concerns are raised against all types of freight facilities, and invasive species can spread through freight movement.

Incidents involving hazardous materials exacerbate public concern and cause real disruption. The railcar fire in the Howard Street tunnel under Baltimore City in 2001 illustrates the perceived and real problems of transporting hazardous materials (USDOT JPO 2002). This incident occurred on tracks next to a major league baseball stadium at game time during the evening rush hour. This incident forced the evacuation of thousands of people and closed businesses in much of downtown Baltimore. A vital railroad link between the Northeast and the South, as well as a local rail transit line and all east-west arterial streets through downtown, were closed for an extended period. The incident fueled demands to prohibit hazardous materials shipments by railroads through Baltimore and Washington, DC, even though alternative routes are very circuitous and expose many other communities to risk.

Restrictions on truck routes in urban areas are among the most localized sources of conflict between freight transportation and surrounding communities (TRB 2003). Typically the purview of local zoning and planning boards, restrictions on truck routes can have significant effects on the local economy and its connections with domestic and foreign trading partners. Although federal laws ensure access for interstate commerce by allowing conventional truck combinations on the National Network, public demands for eliminating some truck routes and for other restrictions on trucks may increase as neighborhoods near ports and industrial areas evolve into expensive residences and as trucks become a larger share of traffic on an increasing number of highways.

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