Office of Operations Freight Management and Operations

I. Study Mandate and Background

Study Mandate

Section 1106(d) of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) directs the Secretary to conduct a review of the condition of and improvements since the designation of the National Highway System (NHS) connectors that serve seaports, airports, and other intermodal freight transportation facilities. "In preparing the report, the Secretary shall review the connectors and identify projects carried out on those connectors that were intended to provide and improve service to an intermodal facility and to facilitate the efficient movements of freight, including movements of freight between modes. If the Secretary determines on the basis of the review that there are impediments to improving the connectors serving intermodal facilities,...the Secretary shall make any appropriate recommendations as part of the Report to Congress."

The FHWA conducted this study with the objectives to: 1) evaluate the condition of NHS connector highway infrastructure to major intermodal freight terminals; 2) review improvements and investments that have been made or are programmed for the connectors; and 3) identify impediments to making improvements to the intermodal freight connectors and approaches to overcoming the impediments. NHS connectors to intermodal passenger facilities were not specified in Section 1106(d) of TEA-21, and are not a part of this study.


The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) created a new policy framework for addressing national infrastructure into the 21st century. For the first time, intermodal policy was established as a cornerstone of Federal surface transportation programs. ISTEA made it national policy to "encourage and promote development of a national intermodal transportation system in the United States to move goods and people in an energy efficient manner, provide the foundation for improved productivity growth, strengthen the Nation's ability to compete in the global economy, and obtain the optimum yield from the Nation's transportation resources."

ISTEA called for the establishment of the NHS. It specified that the "purpose of the National Highway System is to provide an interconnected system of principal arterial routes which will serve major population centers, international border crossings, ports, airports, public transportation facilities, and other major travel destinations; meet defense requirements and serve interstate and inter-regional travel." As part of the effort to establish the NHS, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the State Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and the MPOs, in cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), identified intermodal terminals that warranted a connection to the NHS. The NHS system includes the Interstate Highway System and other principal arterials, the defense Strategic Highway Network (STRAHNET) and its connectors to military installations, and strategic transportation hubs identified in cooperation with the States and MPOs.

In 1997, NHS mileage carried 1 trillion or 45 percent of the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the U.S. on 4% of the Nation's total public highway mileage. The roads on the NHS, therefore, represent the backbone of the Nation's freight network.

While there was an attempt to serve major intermodal terminals, there was little public sector knowledge of intermodal facilities, minimal guidance, and widely varying approaches taken in defining major intermodal facilities by the States. The task of identifying intermodal terminals with any consistency among States proved difficult. By the time the proposed National Highway System was submitted to Congress in late 1993, the FHWA and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) realized that the effort in this area was inadequate and that the task of identifying connectors needed to be revisited.

Two years later, when Congress passed the NHS Designation Act of 1995, it directed the Secretary of Transportation to submit a revised list of intermodal connectors to Congress. To avoid the initial problems encountered in designating connections between intermodal terminals and the NHS, FHWA worked in cooperation with the States and MPOs to develop guidelines for the designation of intermodal connectors. In April of 1995, FHWA issued "Guidelines for Identifying National Highway System Connectors to Major Intermodal Terminals."(1) These guidelines, outlined in Appendix A, specify the designation criteria for both nationally significant facilities (primary criteria) and for facilities important to a particular State (secondary criteria). The guidelines include criteria for both freight and passenger intermodal facilities for completeness even though passenger facilities were not part of this study.

The term "intermodal" is defined for this study as using more than one mode in moving a person or goods. As an example, for freight, rail to truck transfer terminals qualify as intermodal whereas "transshipments" within the same mode (i.e., truck to truck or rail to rail) would not. A "seamless" intermodal transfer is one that occurs in a timely and efficient manner, without delay. Intermodal connectors are public roads linking intermodal terminals to the existing NHS. For purposes of this report, the terms NHS connector and intermodal connector are interchangeable.

Primary criteria define a "major" intermodal freight connector by activity level (i.e., truck or freight volumes). A major freight intermodal terminal must generate enough truck traffic (e.g., 100 trucks per day in each direction) on one or more of the principal routes serving an intermodal facility, to be considered nationally significant.

Secondary criteria consider the importance of an intermodal facility to a State. This criteria permits the designation of intermodal terminals that handle more than 20 percent of freight or passenger volumes by mode within a State and have a significant volume arriving and departing on the NHS connector (rather than primarily a transshipment terminal). Also, included under the secondary criteria were intermodal terminals recognized by the State or MPO as an important facility and targeted for major investments to handle expanding traffic.

Based on these guidelines, connections to 1,407 major freight and passenger terminals were identified by the States and MPOs based on the criteria established by DOT, totaling 2,032 miles. The list of freight connectors, along with passenger terminal connectors, was submitted to Congress in May of 1996. TEA-21, enacted June 9, 1998, designated the intermodal connectors as part of the NHS. In addition, the Congress directed FHWA to conduct a study of the conditions on NHS intermodal freight connectors, emphasizing the crucial role that the connectors play in our Nation's intermodal freight transportation system.

Table 1 shows the number of freight connectors by terminal type. There were
517 freight terminals (river and ocean port, rail, and pipeline). In addition, 99 major freight airports, most of which handle both passenger and freight, were identified in cooperation with FAA. There were a total of 1,222 miles of connector roadway inventoried by the States for 616 terminals. Some high volume terminals warranted multiple connectors while others terminals had direct connections to the NHS with zero mileage for connector length. A listing of freight intermodal connectors by State is included in Appendix C.

Table 1. Intermodal Freight Terminals
Connector Type Terminals Miles
Ports (ocean and river) 253 532
Airports 99 221
Truck/Rail Terminals 203 354
Pipeline/Truck Terminals 61 115
Total Number of NHS Freight Terminals 616 1222

Strategic Planning

In full recognition of these concerns for national security and international competitiveness, U.S. DOT and FHWA have adopted strategic planning initiatives that articulate our Nation's vision for intermodal transport and point the direction for program initiatives to fulfill this vision.

The U.S. Department of Transportation seeks to "serve America by ensuring a safe, efficient, accessible, and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future."(2) FHWA's vision is "to create the safest and most efficient and effective highway and intermodal transportation system in the world for the American people..."(3) The U.S. DOT Strategic Plan focuses on mobility, safety, economic growth and trade, the human and natural environment and national security.

1. FHWA, April 14, 1995 memorandum, Guidelines for Identifying National Highway System Connectors to Major Intermodal Terminals, HEP-10.

2. US Department of Transportation, Performance Plan for Fiscal Year 2000, p. 2.

3. US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, 1998 FHWA National Strategic Plan, p. 3.

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