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III. Condition and Investment Analysis

Data needed to respond to the requirements of the study objectives were identified for the following categories: physical condition, investments, and the investment process, including an assessment of impediments to making needed improvements on the NHS connectors. A preliminary review of available data sources and information revealed little consistent and reliable information on the connectors. This was primarily because NHS connectors were only recently designated and existing data systems were in the process of incorporating them. Because of this fundamental lack of objective information, and because of the variety of NHS connectors under review, FHWA undertook a field inventory of the connectors.

A sampling approach to data collection was considered, but since most States had fewer than 10 connectors, it was decided that all the connectors would be inventoried. Also, because of the way different types of intermodal terminals are operated, their ownership, eligibility for federal funding and their treatment in the planning process, data was collected and analyzed by terminal type (port, airport, railhead, and pipeline terminal). Because of the general lack of available information and the possible burden on FHWA field offices, the field inventory form was designed to be completed with available data or on a single field visit. A draft inventory form was developed, field tested, and a focus group was convened to provide input before the inventory form was finalized. The inventory form, including detailed item-by-item instructions, is included in Appendix B.

The inventory form was developed in cooperation with key individuals with experience and expertise in terminal access issues from the Federal Railroad Administration, the Office of the Secretary, the Maritime Administration, State DOTs, MPOs, terminal operators, and FHWA field staff. A steering group comprised of representatives from these organizations was convened for input on the study approach and data availability. Industry representatives from the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA), American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the National Industrial Transportation League and the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (AMPO) were also consulted and provided their views on the study conduct.

Field Data Collection

The FHWA Division Offices, located in each State, were assigned the task of data collection. The field data collection for physical conditions relied heavily on the observations and judgment of the data collector. The reporting of investment data also requested an evaluation of the planning and programming processes at the statewide and metropolitan levels to identify impediments to making improvements on the connectors. Our FHWA Division Offices conducted this effort in cooperation with the State DOTs and MPOs.

While the study focused on the recently approved NHS connectors, there were some States that had connectors to major intermodal terminals "previously approved" in the initial 1995 designation of the NHS. Since these terminals were already served by an NHS connector, they were not included in the connector designation process initiated in 1996 and were never designated as "NHS connectors". Since the study was directed at designated connectors, "previously approved" connectors were not required to be part of the study. However, it was requested that "previously approved" connector-like facilities be treated as regular connectors and included in the inventory. Relatively few "previously approved" connector-like facilities were not included in the inventory.

Data collection procedures varied from State to State depending on the availability of information on hand and the cooperation of the States and MPOs. Much of the information was obtained from existing data sources maintained within the State DOTs, MPOs, and local jurisdictions. In most cases, some on-site visits were needed to supplement these available sources. Where on-site visits were necessary, a team approach involving FHWA Division, State DOT, MPO, local jurisdiction and terminal operator representatives was used. The team approach was adopted as the preferred way to obtain the required information in a cooperative manner. Also, because of the reluctance of some terminal operators to provide proprietary input that might become public, it was agreed that the results for individual connectors would not be published.

Information on investments was critical to the study. There were difficulties, however, associated with getting complete investment data, especially where local and private sector funding was involved. Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Programs (TIPs) and Statewide Transportation Improvement Programs (STIPs) were the primary source of information for planned improvements to the connectors in the next three years. Since not all improvements are listed as separate projects on the TIPs and STIPs, this information had to be supplemented with input from local agencies or private sources, or discussions with terminal operators where possible.

Analysis of Physical Infrastructure

The on-site inventory looked at the physical condition of the connectors. There were four major areas: 1) Pavement condition; 2) Geometric and physical features; 3) Railroad crossings; and 4) Traffic operations and safety. Much of the analysis is based upon the engineering judgement in the field inventory on the adequacy of service the connectors were providing for truck traffic. The percents given in the analyses are the percent of miles determined inadequate in the field inventory.

Pavement Condition

The rating of pavement was broken into five categories and is primarily based on an assessment of the influence of the speed at which a commercial truck can comfortably travel. The pavement rating guidance is shown in Table 2.

Table 2. Pavement Rating Guide
Rating Description
Very good Newly built or resurfaced and distress free.
Good Smooth surface with little to no cracking or rutting.
Fair Serviceable with shallow rutting and moderate cracks beginning to occur, but does not affect travel speed on the connector.
Poor Same problems as fair but worse, causing some reduction in speed.
Very poor Major problems with potholes etc., causing substantial reductions in speed.

Pavements rated as poor and very poor are the most important for purposes of physical assessment. Pavements rated in these categories cause reductions in the speed and efficiency of commercial vehicles using a facility and may also damage the vehicle and its contents. Because of the effect of poor and very poor pavements on speed, they are considered past due for resurfacing. Very poor pavements will generally require full pavement reconstruction to restore serviceability.

The pavement condition data from the inventory were grouped in the following categories: very good/good, fair, and poor/very poor. Table 3 shows the percent distribution by these categories for all connectors inventoried.

Table 3. Pavement Condition Ratings for Inventoried Connectors (% Connector Mileage)
Rating Percentage
Very Good/Good 51%
Fair 37%
Poor/Very Poor 12%

All NHS Mileage (without connector mileage) - Poor/Very Poor - 8%

By way of comparison, an estimated 8 percent of all NHS mileage reported through the Highway Performance Monitoring System (HPMS) was rated as poor/very poor. Table 4 shows poor/very poor pavement condition by terminal type.

Table 4. Poor/Very Poor Pavement Ratings by Terminal Type (% Connector Mileage)
Terminal Type Poor/Very Poor
Airports 7%
Truck/Pipeline 7%
Ports (ocean and river) 15%
Truck/Rail 12%

Poor/Very Poor pavement condition ratings for airport and pipeline terminals show a slightly better than average ratings of 7 percent (vs. 8 percent for all NHS). Significantly worse than the NHS average of 8 percent are connectors serving rail/truck terminals with a 12 percent poor/very poor rating and coastal and river ports with a 15 percent poor/very poor rating. This is likely due to the fact that most of the ports and all the rail facilities are privately owned terminals and their intermodal connectors are primarily serving truck traffic to these facilities. Airport connectors have a satisfactory rating (when compared with the all NHS average) probably because they are primarily serving passenger traffic with relatively few trucks.

Geometric and Physical Features

A list of physical features was evaluated, as part of the field inventory, for deficiencies. Inadequate shoulder width, turning radii, lack of stabilized shoulders and inadequate travel way width were the most prevalent problems found. The top 5 problems by terminal type are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Geometric and Physical Deficiencies by Terminal Type

graph showing percentages of deficiencies for types of terminals D

Problems with the shoulders showed the highest frequency of problems for geometric and physical inadequacies. Inadequate shoulder width identifies roadways with insufficient width or strength to accommodate a parked truck without hindering traffic flow. Often trucks are required to wait outside terminal gates prior to the terminal opening or during congested periods of the day or they may have to stop for safety or other reasons. The lack of shoulders for parking can cause partial blocking of a travel lane when a truck parks or is disabled. This is both an operations and a safety concern. Lack of stabilized shoulders can also cause roadways to wear prematurely due to frequent heavy truck loadings at the pavement edge causing the transfer of stresses to adjacent unconsolidated shoulder material. This can undermine the paved surfaces at the edge of the lane, accelerating wear on otherwise normally adequate pavements.

"Tight turning radii" will force trucks to make wide turns into adjacent lanes or onto curbs to negotiate an intersection due to obstructions at the corner. This presents an operations problem because of the delays caused by the truck maneuver as well as a safety hazard. Tight turning radii also result in physical damage to roadways, poles, curbs, and gutters and increases vehicle operating costs due to the cumulative damage to trucks.

Inadequate travel way width suggests that the roadway width is not adequate for two-way truck traffic, imposing safety and operational deficiencies to vehicles using the facility and for adjacent land uses such as on-street parking for residential and commercial properties. Drainage problems typically occur in low-lying areas, primarily approaching coastal and inland ports, where periodic roadway flooding was cited as a significant problem. In many cases, more than one physical deficiency was noted. As shown in Figure 2, most connectors had multiple geometric and physical deficiencies.

Figure 2. Multiple Geometric and Physical Deficiencies by Terminal Type

graph showing percentages of deficiencies for types of terminals D

Almost half the terminals have at least 2 deficiencies and 10-20 percent show 3 or more deficiencies. Any one of these conditions is a problem where frequent truck traffic is present.

Railroad Crossings

Because of the presence of active railroad crossings near or adjacent to most freight terminals and their possible impact on safety and potential to cause traffic operational problems, they were evaluated as a separate category. There were 250 connectors with active crossings and half of those had railroad crossing inadequacies. These are shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Railroad Crossing Deficiencies

graph showing percentages of deficiencies for types of terminals D

The most common railroad crossing deficiencies were rough crossing profiles and delays at crossing (28 to 39 percent of crossings). Rough crossing profiles are created by uneven surfaces between the roadway and the rail track, causing trucks to slow significantly to avoid damage to cargo and vehicle. Delays at crossings (19 to 25 percent of crossings) occur when train movements in and around terminals create interferences with highway movements. This interference often extends several blocks due to the length of trains, and impacts movements throughout the local area. Other identified deficiencies included substandard crossing warning devices and lack of alternative routes if blocked by a train (extended delays where a train blocks all access routes to the facility). Lack of alternate routes, delays at crossings and switching/make-up operations can seriously affect the operation of a terminal by blocking a connector completely. The remaining items indicate a significant number of unsafe or substandard crossings.

Traffic Operations and Safety

Over half of the freight connectors exhibited safety and/or operational problems. Figure 4 shows these deficiencies by terminal type. Heavy traffic, difficulty making turns and lack of turning lanes were the most prevalent problems causing congestion on the connectors. Delays at traffic signals, on-street parking conflicts, truck queues at facility gates, frequent accidents, and lack of signals are also shown.

Figure 4. Traffic Operations and Safety Deficiencies by Terminal Type

graph showing percentages of deficiencies for types of terminals D

Investment Information

Information on improvements and investments made were reported for the three-year period prior to the inventory, 1995-1998, and for improvements and investments programmed for the following three years, 1999-2001. Table 5 shows funding by source.

Table 5. NHS Connector Funding by Source ($ millions)
Funding Source Past 3-Years Next 3-Years
Federal $231 $457
State $ 82 $263
Local $134 $189
Private $135 $ 40
Total $582 $949

The investment levels by terminal type and funding source were compiled from available State and MPO programming documents and other available sources. It shows significant increases programmed for the "next 3-years", relative to the "past 3-years". This most likely reflects increased program authorizations made available through TEA-21, which increased Federal funding by 40 percent relative to ISTEA, and increased recognition by the States and MPOs of the connectors in the planning and programming process. These investment levels reported by the survey are estimates and should not be construed as a census of all connector expenditures.

The amounts by terminal type are shown in Table 6. While a significant increase in spending is apparent, it is abstract without knowing what level of investment is required for adequate service. To make a comparison with the level of investment on the NHS mainline facilities, the annual investments were calculated on a per-mile basis.

Table 6. NHS Connector Funding by Terminal Type ($ millions)
Terminal Type Past 3-Years Next 3-Years
Airport $230 $247
Pipeline $ 19 $ 32
Port $208 $401
Truck/Rail $125 $269
Total $582 $949

The above funding amounts shown appear to be improving, however, they do not represent what is actually occurring on the vast majority of connectors. For example, the Alameda Rail Corridor and the San Francisco Airport Connector are complex, extensive improvements to local networks that are not representative of investment activity on a typical connector. When the top five (for each terminal type) of these types of cost-intensive projects are removed from the database of NHS connector investments, the results change significantly.

Table 7. Annual Investment Levels Per Mile
Terminal Type Past 3-Year Next 3-Year
(Without Top 5)
Airport $346,900 $ 78,900
Pipeline $ 55,400 $ 11,600
Port $136,100 $ 40,600
Truck/Rail $117,800 $ 65,600

Average for All Non-Interstate NHS Mileage $102,100/mile

Table 7 shows annual investments per mile by terminal type for the past three years beginning in 1995 (through 1998). When comparing to an average annual investment of $102,100 per mile on all non-Interstate NHS routes, the investment levels for the NHS connectors shown in the first column, compare favorably.

The last column in Table 7 shows investments for the three-years since 1995 without the top five projects reporting the highest level of investment for each terminal type. Without the top 5 projects, the average annual investment for all terminal types drops significantly. The level of investment for ports appears to be very low ($40,600/mile), less than 40 percent of the average for all the NHS ($102,100/mile), especially since ports exhibit the most deficiencies overall. Investments in truck/rail terminal connectors decline less dramatically, probably because of a significant amount of work associated with the recent rail mergers in modernizing and relocating terminals. While airport connectors appear to be in relatively good condition, investments in airport connectors also lag given the importance of air travel to a community, the expected growth in air travel, and the co-location of many air freight and passenger facilities. Pipelines are reporting the lowest levels of investments but it is difficult to make any conclusions since little is known about them.

For the 1999 Oregon Highway Plan, the Oregon Department of Transportation identified needed improvements to their intermodal connectors on the NHS. Identification of needs was based on local and regional transportation plans, improvement programs, environmental impact documents, port district plans and programs, a windshield survey, and visits with agency staff in each of the communities with intermodal connectors. Identified improvement types included:

  • Pavement treatments,
  • Roadway widening, reconstruction, and extension,
  • Signal and channelization improvements, and
  • Construction/lengthening of grade separated structures.

More detailed information can be found in the Oregon DOT report Freight Moves the Oregon Economy, where intermodal connector needs are estimated at $121 million over a 20-year period. About half of the total is for grade-separation structures, street widening, and other improvements in the vicinity of the Portland International Airport.

During the three-year period prior to 1999, Oregon's expenditures for connector improvements are estimated at $5-10 million. Over the next three years, $40 million is programmed for spending on connectors. However, most of this is for construction of a grade-separated structure and rehabilitation of an existing bridge on connectors to the marine terminals at Port of Portland.

There are currently no national, regional, or terminal based design standards for intermodal access upon which to base a definitive conclusive statement on adequacy of investment. Further examination in cooperation with major freight stakeholders of desirable practices in intermodal access design is warranted to determine the appropriate level of condition or performance for NHS intermodal freight connectors. Without an agreed upon standard or warrant for NHS connectors, evaluations and judgments can only be made on connector investment relative to other NHS routes and on the basis of professional engineering judgment on the adequacy of connector service.

Challenges to Implementation of Intermodal Freight Connector Projects

The existing decision making process for transportation improvements in States and MPOs has primarily focused on passenger needs, with the assumption that any highway improvement also benefits freight transportation. Freight transportation constituencies are different than those for passenger and developing new public/private partnerships can be challenging. The scarcity of funds, project eligibility and differing responsibilities and perspectives between States, MPOs and local governments creates a complex administrative situation in the coordination and promotion of investments for intermodal freight development and connector improvements. Compounding this problem is the lack of quantitative tools that allow State and local governments to properly evaluate the economic benefits of freight investment to the region and Nation as a whole. Several States and MPOs have been successful at raising freight transportation issues in the planning process but most others continue to struggle. Table 8 summarizes the jurisdictional responsibility for NHS freight connectors.

Table 8. Reported NHS Connector Mileage by Jurisdiction
Jurisdiction Mileage Percent
State 349 29%
Local 635 52%
State and Local (mix) 238 19%
Total 1222 100%

As shown above, responsibility for freight connectors is not consistently assumed at one jurisdictional level or another. More than half of NHS connector mileage is totally under local jurisdictional control with another 19% split between State and local. Local jurisdictions, faced with a myriad of public requirements, typically do not see freight connectors as their responsibility. Where a local road is under the control of a local jurisdiction, the State may not have the authority to spend State funds off the State system to match NHS funds or may not even see local roads as a priority. The generally low profile of private freight operations in the community creates challenges for focusing local public sector interest in freight movement. The fact that local ownership is so high may account for the low investment levels on freight connectors.

It was noted at the outreach meetings that jurisdictional responsibility is only an issue if the level of government with responsibility for connectors does not have a full understanding of the needs of the freight community. Participants at the Newark outreach session felt that connectors would be better served under State control. In Tacoma, participants felt that local governments were closer to the problem and understand the needs of the port community, while the State has to contend with numerous other concerns and might not be able to provide the degree of focus and support needed

The field survey also asked what factors contributed to needed improvements not being done. Responses from the survey form as to why this is occurring (in order of frequency of response) are: 1) low priority in State/MPO plans; 2) lack of local match or sponsorship; 3) lack of private sector participation; 4) neighborhood-community opposition; 5) environmental concerns; and 6) physical or other constraints.

After the initial analysis of the field inventory data was conducted, a series of outreach meetings were held to further refine and validate the results and conclusions of the analysis. Those attending these outreach meetings and in other forums, where the results of the study were presented, voiced agreement with the results and provided additional input on their perceptions of the results of the study.

As with all freight initiatives, the challenge for the NHS freight connectors focuses on increasing their priority for transportation funding. The lack of a constituency to champion connector initiatives, combined with the lack of public understanding on the role these connectors play in the economic health of local communities and the country, as well as complex community and environmental situations surrounding these facilities, make successful intermodal development a challenging task.

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