Office of Operations Freight Management and Operations

Executive Summary

Section 1106(d) of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) directed the Secretary to conduct a review of the National Highway System (NHS) freight connectors that serve seaports, airports, and major intermodal terminals and report to Congress by June 9, 2000. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) conducted this study with the following objectives: (1) evaluate the condition of NHS connectors to major intermodal freight terminals; (2) review improvements and investments made or programmed for these connectors; and (3) identify impediments and options to making improvements to the intermodal freight connectors.


NHS freight connectors are the public roads leading to major intermodal terminals. The connectors were designated in cooperation with State Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) based on criteria developed by the FHWA and the U.S. Department of Transportation. The criteria considered the level of activity of an intermodal terminal and its importance to a particular State. There are 517 freight-only terminals on the NHS which include 253 ports (ocean and river), 203 truck/rail terminals, and 61 pipeline/truck terminals. In addition to these freight-only terminals, 99 major freight airports, which handle both passenger and freight, were included in the list of NHS connectors that were inventoried. These 616 intermodal freight terminals represent 1,222 miles of NHS connectors.

The NHS carries approximately 75% of commercial truck vehicle miles of travel. In 1997, trucks moved 58% of total U.S. freight tonnage representing almost 70% of U.S. freight value. The NHS connectors link this highway backbone to other modes of transport at their terminals, creating a national intermodal freight system and enabling more efficient use of all freight modes. Despite the fact that connectors are less than 1 percent of total NHS mileage, they are the "front door" to the freight community for a broad array of intermodal transport services and options.

NHS connectors are short, averaging less than two miles in length. They are usually local, county or city streets and generally have lower design standards than mainline NHS routes, which are primarily Interstate and arterials. Intermodal connectors serve heavy truck volumes moving between intermodal freight terminals and mainline NHS, primarily in major metropolitan areas. They typically provide this service in older, industrialized and other mixed land use areas where there are often physical constraints or undesirable community impacts.

NHS connectors must meet changing expectations. The U.S. economy is undergoing dramatic changes, with major evolutions in manufacturing, trade, finance, telecommunications, and other key sectors. In a global economy, American manufacturers rely on multinational out-sourcing and production. To remain competitive, they must be able to efficiently move raw materials, partially assembled products and finished goods to and from all areas of the world.

Logistics systems must be able to rapidly adjust to changing demand and inventory levels at each stage of production and distribution around the globe. Logistics systems increasingly rely on the Nation's transportation system to provide just-in-time delivery to meet production cycles. Connectors are important in defense mobilization and national security. Because of the increased reliance of the military on the commercial transportation system, and the lengthening of supply chains to sustain military units during peacekeeping and other deployments, intermodal linkage to ports and airports has become an integral part of national defense planning. The NHS and its intermodal connectors are an integral part of these new logistics systems.

"Intermodalism" is a service intensive form of transport. The coordination of freight arrival, staging, and handoff, combined with the constrained footprints of many freight terminals in dense urban areas, places a premium on consistent and reliable service. This report addresses a small, but important component of the Nation's intermodal freight system. Our Nation's ability to compete globally does not hinge on the NHS connectors, but our ability to recognize and effectively address connector needs within the context of our overall intermodal freight system will have a measurable effect on our international competitiveness.

Study Findings

A comprehensive needs assessment for connectors, similar to the biennial report to Congress on the Condition and Performance of the Nation's highway systems, was not possible for this study because a comparable data system does not exist for connectors. FHWA field offices in cooperation with the State DOTs and MPOs conducted a field inventory of conditions, investment levels, and impediments to improvements on the connectors. In addition, several outreach meetings were conducted to refine and validate survey findings. Participants at NHS connector outreach meetings and in other forums, where the results of the study were presented, confirmed these general findings and provided additional input on their perceptions of the study results. The results of the survey and outreach follow:

  • Connectors to ports were found to have twice the percent of mileage with pavement deficiencies when compared to non-Interstate NHS routes. Connectors to rail terminals had 50 percent more mileage in the deficient category. Connectors to airport and pipeline terminals appeared to be in better condition with about the same percent of mileage with pavement deficiencies as those on non-Interstate NHS. This may be due to the higher priority given to airport access because of the high volume of passenger travel on these roads.
  • Problems with shoulders, inadequate turning radii, and inadequate travel way width were most often cited as geometric and physical deficiencies with connectors. Data were not available to directly compare connectors and other NHS routes with regard to rail crossings, lane width, and geometrics. A general comparison of functional class attributes suggests that lane width, cross section, and geometrics of the connectors would be significantly lower than on non-Interstate NHS main routes. This is consistent with the differences to be expected between NHS mainline routes, generally principal and minor arterials, and connectors, which are often functionally classified as collectors or local roads.
  • The reported investment levels on all connectors were comparable with investment levels on the non-Interstate NHS (average/mile). However, most of the investment was concentrated on a small group of high-profile terminal projects such as the Alameda Corridor or the San Francisco Airport. When the top five terminals with the largest reported investment were eliminated from the database for each of the terminal types, average investment levels, on a per mile basis, were significantly lower than the non-Interstate mainline NHS.
  • While the analysis showed that the intermodal connectors have significantly lower physical and operational characteristics, and appear to be underfunded when compared with all NHS mileage, it is difficult to determine the magnitude of the problem. There are currently no national, regional, or terminal activity level based design standards for intermodal access upon which to base a conclusive statement on the adequacy of investment. This lack of design standards is a significant finding in and of itself.

Impediments to Investment

As with all transport needs, funding was the most consistent concern raised in outreach meetings as a major impediment to implementing needed freight improvements. The issues with investments on the NHS connectors are similar to issues with freight investment in general. In this sense, the NHS connectors are a microcosm of the problems associated with advancing general freight improvement projects in the State and local decisionmaking processes. States and MPOs often see freight as a low priority when compared with the pressing needs of passenger travel. NHS connectors are "orphans" in the traditional State and MPO planning processes. The generally low profile of freight operations in the community, and the fact that freight operations are conducted by the private sector, creates challenges for focusing local public sector interest and resources on freight projects. Consistent with freight initiatives in general, the challenge for NHS freight connectors is competition for public transportation funding resources.

MPOs and some States often view a connector as benefiting only a small segment of its constituent population, with most of the economic and service benefits dispersed throughout other jurisdictions. Several States and MPOs have freight advisory committees or similar bodies to express freight concerns, but the translation of freight planning into a program of freight projects is problematic. Complex community issues and environmental concerns surrounding these facilities and the continuing competition for use of land in and around freight terminals in congested urban areas, especially along the waterfront, were also raised as impediments to freight improvements. Compounding this is the lack of quantitative tools that allow local and State governments to properly evaluate the economic benefits of freight investment, including NHS connector investments, to the region and Nation as a whole. The lack of a constituency to champion connector and other freight oriented initiatives, combined with the lack of public understanding in the role these connectors play in the economic health of local communities and regions, make successful intermodal freight development a challenging task.

Charting a Course for Overcoming Impediments

Appropriate areas of consideration to enhance NHS connector focus within the statewide and metropolitan planning and programming processes were identified. There were four major issues identified for further examination in the field survey conducted by FHWA for this report, and in outreach sessions involving private sector freight interests, port and airport authorities, States, and MPOs. The four issue areas are: 1) the need for increased awareness of the role of the connectors; 2) the examination of funding options; 3) application of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) and other technologies to improve the operational linkage of connectors with terminals and other freight modes; and 4) the community and environmental issues surrounding connectors and their effect on improvement options.

The following section identifies several analysis options under each issue area. The options listed for the issue areas are not a definitive list of analysis options. They respond to general concerns raised in the field survey and in outreach meetings. They are included for illustrative purposes only and as a point of departure for further discussion and examination. They are not policy recommendations.

Awareness and Coordination

Among the options that might be examined to increase awareness of NHS connector concerns and improve coordination of various stakeholder efforts are:

  1. Freight planning incentive grants – In addition to existing State Planning and Research funds (SPR), supplemental grants could support States, MPOs, and multi-jurisdictional partnerships that are identifying and planning freight projects.
  2. National Truck and Intermodal Network – In the early 1980s the National Truck Network (NTN) was designated. A National Truck and Intermodal Network would be an extension of the NTN to major port, airport, rail yard, and pipeline terminals that generate high volumes of intermodal freight and would convey the significance of the connectors to the overall national network.
  3. Intermodal connector evaluations – Federally funded port, aviation or roadway studies/projects should include an evaluation of the adequacy of the NHS connectors to support projected terminal growth and identify any needed infrastructure and operations improvements to the connector(s).

Information Technologies

Outreach participants noted the need for intermodal applications of ITS and other advanced technology (referred to as infostructure) to help provide the information critical to scheduling time dependent intermodal movements. Freight oriented ITS can play a crucial role in intermodal system optimization, and forestall some of the infrastructure investment requirements traditionally cited as solutions for the problems identified in this analysis. Information technologies can be applied to make more efficient use of the existing 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, interoperability among information systems must be addressed. The Federal government should continue to encourage strategies that integrate the use of infostructure 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.


The needs and capital requirements of the intermodal connectors vary extensively throughout the country. It is recommended that a full range of financing mechanisms be investigated, emphasizing innovative financing options leveraging State/local/private funds. 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.

Community and Environmental Responsiveness

Environmental protection and community considerations must be integrated into the development and operation of intermodal connectors. Suggested analysis options to be examined in planning and project development for intermodal connectors include: 1) exploring mechanisms for leveraging transportation investments 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 advancing the state-of-the-art for successfully integrating freight movement into the Nation's landscape and communities.

Future Direction

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 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."

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