Office of Operations Freight Management and Operations

IV. Critical Issues and Strategic Initiatives for Intermodal Connectors

Critical Issues

This chapter identifies key issue areas and options to improve the efficiency and operation of intermodal connectors, based on the analyses conducted as part of this study. They also build on recommendations in recent USDOT reports, specifically the Marine Transportation System (MTS) report submitted to Congress in 1999, and the DOT report "Impact of Changes in Ship Design on Ports and Intermodal Facilities." This latter report was a product of a series of meetings held in 1998 with freight stakeholders on trends in maritime shipping and the likely impacts on ports and rail/highway intermodal linkages.

These issue areas and options presented in the chapter are also responsive to the comments expressed in the outreach sessions conducted by FHWA for this report, and outreach meetings with private sector freight interests, port and airport authorities, States, and MPOs. Finally, they build on to the FHWA field review of freight transportation, conducted by FHWA's Corporate Management Business Unit, which resulted in a February 2000 report "Implementing Improvements to Enhance Freight Transportation."

The NHS intermodal freight connectors are unique in some ways; in others, they are microcosms of general freight mobility. Transport projects tend to be evaluated on the basis of their costs and benefits to the sponsoring jurisdiction, whether at the State or the local level. The environmental and social costs of both passenger and freight projects, including the connectors, tend to be borne locally. Project benefits, on the other hand, tend to be distributed differently. Benefits of passenger projects tend to remain within the sponsoring jurisdiction’s boundaries, while the economic benefits of freight projects are widely distributed. Increasing the awareness of freight benefits and costs is an important role and contribution for the Federal Government, and should be undertaken more extensively through the development of economic analysis and network analysis tools to assist States and local governments.

Making the leap from improved understanding and planning to actual project development, however, will require financial support, since jurisdictions naturally tend to program projects that show the greatest direct benefits to their constituents. Systemic improvements for freight mobility, including the NHS connectors, will likely require innovative approaches and financing strategies to encourage consistent programming of freight projects of widespread value to freight mobility. This is particularly true as transportation "needs" continue to outpace State and local abilities to deliver transport system improvements and services. The following identifies the broad issue areas identified in the analyses and outreach sessions:

Benefits: The problem of introducing freight projects may be compounded by the lack of adequate economic tools for rigorous and systemic evaluation, both of the freight connector projects and of the tradeoffs that must be assessed between freight connector and passenger-oriented projects. The goal of better understanding the benefits of NHS connector and other freight improvements to local communities, the region and the nation requires revisions to traditional planning procedures and the development of new tools to help States and MPOs better quantify these benefits.

Ownership: The analyses and outreach sessions clearly identified the "orphan" status of the intermodal connectors B roadways that generally lacked attention, with the exception of a handful of significant high-profile projects such as the Alameda Corridor in California, the FAST Corridor in Washington and the Portway in New Jersey. As one public sector agency executive noted at the Tacoma, Washington outreach meeting, "the NHS intermodal connectors are someone else's problem." The assessment of existing conditions on the intermodal connectors clearly demonstrated the lack of attention paid to these short-but-essential pieces of roadway.

Time Horizon: The question of ownership and responsibility is compounded by the time differences between public and private sector planning horizons. Public project planning and implementation, even for relatively small projects, will take a minimum of 5 to 10 years, depending on the complexity of the project. As a result, the private sector often loses interest in projects that seemingly take "forever" to be built. As one private sector representative commented, "We know that we have to get engaged with the MPOs to get our projects. When I come to the meetings and ask when we can get some help, they tell me to come back in 7 years. That's not good enough. We can't wait that long. That's why we have a hard time getting engaged with government agencies...we have a different time horizon and they have a hard time dealing with that."

For extensive projects involving multiple jurisdictions, environmental evaluations, complex financing, and State/Federal project development oversight, the time horizon may be even lengthier. In addition, States and MPOs use multiyear programming of projects as a means of relating the planning process to project development. Typically, programs will be established 3 to 5 years out, with periodic updates to reprioritize projects as needed. Private sector decision making, in contrast, is accelerating to accommodate the demands of competitive international environments for quick response to market pressures. This means that public sector time frames for freight connector improvements are increasingly lagging private sector requirements for decision-making.

Institutional Impediments: Introducing new projects, especially freight projects, into the pipeline is a political challenge when legitimate transportation needs invariably exceed anticipated revenues. Several States and MPOs are actively involved in freight planning, including the establishment of freight advisory committees, but it is difficult to maintain a high level of visibility over time. Examination of a better means of institutionalizing freight concerns and addressing the conflicts between public and private sector decision making will be required to address NHS connector and other intermodal freight transportation concerns in a more consistent manner. The designation of the connectors as NHS has increased the awareness of intermodal connectors; however, it is important to ensure that the appropriate public sector agencies and private sector freight stakeholders are involved in planning capital improvements and ensuring efficient operations. Improving awareness of freight and coordination are fundamental to the furtherance of this goal.

Freight projects usually given priority are the high-profile major port, rail terminal, or airport terminal initiatives with the vast majority of connectors unnoticed in the planning process. High profile projects have been funded through the MPOs, States, and High Priority Projects under ISTEA and TEA-21. Approximately 20 percent of all federally funded freight transportation improvements have received funding under the Demonstration or High Priority Project programs.(9) These high profile projects (for example: Alameda Corridor in California, Point Mack Terminal in Maine, FAST Corridor in Washington State, New Jersey Portway, Cross Harbor Freight Study in New York City, etc.) have brought to the attention of public officials, the potential for economic growth in the area, State, and Nation as well as community, air quality, and congestion benefits. In contrast, most NHS intermodal freight connector improvements have not necessarily been understood, well defined, or caught the imagination of the decision makers, and as a result, have not been funded. This was evidenced in the field review, which showed a very large share of the reported investments were on only a handful of connector projects.

Optimal management of the intermodal connectors can only be achieved when public, private, and multi-jurisdictional elements are coordinated. The need for coordination extends across project planning and development, into on-going operations and maintenance. The development and operation of intermodal connectors must be integrated into the planning of the freight facilities they serve (ports, airports, rail, and pipeline terminals). A coordinated approach will also promote consideration of alternative strategies for addressing connectivity (such as infrastructure improvements, use of information technologies and institutional arrangements).

Charting a Course for Overcoming Impediments

FHWA should assess its role in facilitating the movement of freight with the cooperation and support of those that represent intermodal perspectives on freight mobility requirements from both private and public transportation sectors. Also, given the variability in the data reported for the connectors in the inventory, a more comprehensive examination of deficiencies and investment options is desirable. This assessment should be made in consultation with industry organizations such as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, the Intermodal Association of North America, the American Association of Port Authorities, and other carrier and shipper interest groups to explore options to more effectively address issues of regional and national concern. This approach will be useful to all stakeholders in incorporating the needs of the freight community in the transport project development process. This comprehensive approach is consistent with other Departmental reviews of intermodal issues, most recently the Marine Transportation System (MTS) report submitted to Congress in 1999, which cited the need for examination of NHS connectors, and the DOT report "Impact of Changes in Ship Design on Ports and Intermodal Facilities."

This assessment should include an examination of planning procedures and economic analysis tools and other research and development needs. Program initiatives available under existing surface transportation authorization, or possible future initiatives, to promote freight mobility and NHS connector improvements, should also be considered.

The following section identifies several analysis options under each issue area. They are not a definitive list of analysis options. They do respond to general concerns raised in the field survey and in outreach meetings as the appropriate areas of consideration to enhance NHS connector focus within the statewide and metropolitan planning and programming processes. They are included for illustrative purposes only and as a point of departure for further discussion and examination. They are not policy recommendations. Strategic options for further analysis are presented for the following four issue areas:

  • Awareness and coordination;
  • Information technologies;
  • Funding; and
  • Community and environmental responsiveness

Awareness and Coordination

Clearly the biggest problem in implementing intermodal connectors projects is the lack of priority accorded to freight movements in the planning and programming process.

This is primarily due to the fact that freight projects must compete with "high priority" passenger projects, and with limited funding available. The result is very little is invested in freight transportation improvements. Possible actions to consider in raising the visibility and priority of freight projects in State and MPO planning and programming processes are:

Intermodal Connector Planning and Coordination Incentives: As an incentive to freight project development, additional funding for planning and coordination could be used to financially support States and MPOs who are identifying, conceptualizing and planning for freight projects. Building on the comments received during the outreach meetings, such grants would be awarded to areas and agencies that have demonstrated a commitment to coordination and meaningful private sector involvement. These incentives might consider a planning agency's progress in facilitating on-going private sector freight participation, coordinating project development among public agencies, and development of a freight project implementation plan. Evaluation criteria would need to be developed to encourage adoption of best practices in freight planning throughout the State and local planning communities.

Identification of an Intermodal Network: Many public planning agencies are not fully aware of the importance of freight to the economy of their region and to the Nation as a whole. Participants in outreach meetings highlighted the need to think of the intermodal connectors within the context of the full freight system. One possible means of raising the visibility of freight might be the identification of an intermodal freight network.

The National Truck Network (NTN) was designated in the early 1980s. The NTN is primarily Interstate, principal arterial and other defined major truck routes. This network is limited in some States and does not extend to some of the largest generators of heavy truck traffic. A National Truck and Intermodal Network would be an extension of NTN to major ports, airports, rail yards, and pipeline terminals that generate high volumes of intermodal freight by truck. It is envisioned that the highway component, including intermodal connectors, of this freight network would be a subset of the NHS. Designation of the intermodal connectors to a national freight network would assure the consideration of trucks in the design of any improvements on the network.

Multi-jurisdictional Approaches and Partnerships: Several multi-state pooled-fund initiatives to evaluate the regional importance of freight corridors and other key transport facilities are underway or have been completed by States. However, States participating in pooled fund initiatives may not always agree on the regional prioritization of improvements because of their own State needs. There is strong evidence that regional approaches do increase the degree of understanding of the relative significance of freight corridors within a regional context. Routes and facilities of critical significance to freight can be identified, but the methods used in identification can either reinforce or undermine the legitimacy of the effort. A true partnership demands consultation between the various units of government in determining regional and national priorities. This is the first step to a more fully coordinated program of regional improvements and the fact that these initiatives result in self-selected routes of significance rather than top down designation of critical routes is critical to support at the State and local levels.

Consideration of intermodal connectors in any federally funded port, aviation or roadway study or project: The efficient operation of the intermodal facility is contingent upon the efficient operation of the intermodal connectors. Accordingly, federally funded studies or capital projects on federally funded intermodal terminals should include an evaluation of the adequacy of the highway connectors to identify needed infrastructure and operations improvements. Such an assessment would encourage a closer linkage between transportation planning, land use planning, zoning, and site development.

Information Technologies

An area not addressed in the inventory, because of its invisibility, is the use of information technologies. Industry trends clearly indicate the need for information utilization as well as seamless physical movements. Integrated information technologies use offers the opportunity to optimize the physical capacity of the intermodal connectors, facilitating efficient freight flows. Currently, an array of information systems can be used to facilitate freight movement. In many cases, systems developed to expedite the movement of freight do not extend to the intermodal connectors or the terminals they serve and/or are not interoperable across the various segments of the intermodal system.

Information technologies can be used to make more efficient use of the capacity of connectors by allowing drivers to be informed of gate queues, railroad crossing closings, road conditions and delays, best route information and the availability of loads. In addition, compatibility between information systems must be addressed. The Federal government should continue to encourage strategies that integrate the use of information technologies into the operation of the intermodal connectors and other major freight routes as well. In this manner, the Federal government can ensure that both the information and physical requirements for intermodal connectivity are addressed.


Inadequate funding was identified in the outreach meetings as the most critical problem constraining improvements on the NHS connectors. The needs and capital requirements of the intermodal connectors vary extensively throughout the country. Some projects are minor, involving spot improvements, signing, and traffic control devices; others are significantly greater in size and required investment. Another problem area identified in the inventory and analysis was the inability of some States to spend funds off the State system as well as lack of local match, often required by the State.

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) included the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), a program that provides Federal credit assistance (e.g., direct loans, loan guarantees, and lines of credit) to large-scale transportation projects of national significance. However, each project must meet certain criteria to qualify. It must cost at least $100 million or 50% of a State's annual apportionment of Federal-aid funds, whichever is less, and must be supported in whole or in part from user charges or other non-Federal dedicated funding sources. These criteria would eliminate most of the types of projects proposed on intermodal connectors.

It is suggested that a full range of financing mechanisms be investigated over the next two years prior to reauthorization. These include: 1) a new Federal credit program, similar to TIFIA, targeted at smaller intermodal connector projects; 2) expand the eligibility of the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing credit program to include intermodal connector projects; 3) expand or strengthen the State Infrastructure Banks program, to allow for the capitalization of an intermodal freight connectors account with Federal-aid; 4) encourage the creation of State level credit programs or infrastructure funds for intermodal freight connector projects; 5) connector incentive grants to overcome some of the problems encountered by the States and local areas in funding freight improvements; 6) reducing the match required for Federal funds where connectors under local ownership do not have the resources; and 7) a set-aside of NHS funds for intermodal connector projects.

State and local agency input for any proposed initiative will be sought through ongoing forums, conferences, etc. A National Freight Roundtable representing private freight interests could also provide valuable dialogue on any possible initiatives. However, it is also recognized that these are mechanisms that are subject to congressional action and will be looked at during the reauthorization of the highway program at the end of TEA-21.

Community and Environmental Responsiveness

An evaluation of environmental considerations related to freight projects found that such projects encounter nearly every type of issue. As freight traffic continues to consolidate (i.e., rail mergers, big ships, etc.) into fewer major hubs, the amount of traffic on, and the importance of efficient intermodal connectors will grow. The development and operation of connectors cannot be done in a vacuum. Existing and potential environmental concerns must be recognized and addressed early in the planning process. The development and operation of intermodal connectors are subject to environmental considerations such as wetlands, endangered species and habitats, historical structures, air quality, noise, community cohesion, and environmental justice.

Because of their role in serving heavy truck movements through the freight system, intermodal connectors generate more "host community" issues than many other transportation projects. Host community issues arise where communities adjacent or proximate to where the intermodal freight terminals and connectors are physically located have the perception that the benefits generated by such facilities and any associated improvement projects go to areas beyond their own. The host community believes they are exposed to the negative impacts generated by the truck traffic while other areas receive the benefits of improved freight service. In many cases, these perceptions are valid ones since they have to deal with a disproportionate share of the negative impacts (e.g., air quality, community disruption, noise, traffic, and safety issues). This can easily become the focus of host community concerns, especially on local roads. In order to deliver necessary transportation improvements while protecting communities, early consideration of these issues is critical.

Environmental protection and community considerations must be integrated into the development and operation of intermodal connectors. Suggested considerations to be examined in planning and project development for intermodal connectors include:
1) exploring mechanisms for leveraging the transportation investment into local economic development opportunities; 2) taking into account the concerns of surrounding communities regarding such issues as truck traffic, air quality and noise; 3) identifying creative strategies to meet local, State and Federal environmental requirements; 4) ensuring appropriate planning and training to enable quick response to environmental incidents; and 5) identifying funding for host communities to explore avenues to reduce the localized impacts faced by the communities surrounding major regional freight terminals and advance the state-of-the-art for successfully integrating freight movement into the nation's landscape and communities. These actions will promote intermodal projects as a "good neighbor" to communities and other land uses.

9. "Funding and Institutional Options for Freight Infrastructure Improvements" (KPMG for FHWA Office of Freight Management and Operations, May 2000).

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