“What gets measured gets done” is far truer in agency settings than most like to think. In fact, not including a substantive transportation area such as freight in transportation legislation in the past has resulted in little support for specific freight activities at public agencies. Without freight-oriented public policy, programs, warrants and funding freight supporting actions, a specific focus on freight development at state DOTs was rare.

Things have changed. With or without MAP-21, freight was accelerating as a program area, especially in freight rich regions such as the MAFC region. The awareness surrounding and innovation to support freight transportation have developed so rapidly over the last decade that policy and programs areas have been left to catch up with the economics and logistics of a new global economy. Now with MAP-21, a range of freight initiates, both recommended and mandated, have been released for implementation by state DOTs and their partners.

Precursors to MAP-21

Before reviewing of MAP-21 freight initiatives, it is worth noting the precursors to recognition of freight in transportation policy and funding. In the ten-state MAASTO region, interest in supporting and leveraging freight began in earnest in 2002 with the states’ support for the Upper Midwest Freight Corridor Study. In 2006 this group formed the Mississippi Valley Freight Coalition and later changed to Mid-America Freight Coalition in 2010 to reflect the renaming of the AASHTO regional group, MAASTO. Further, the states that comprise the MAFC have been innovators and early adopters of freight initiatives. The MAFC states have been leaders in freight planning, freight advisory groups, and multistate project coordination in their planning and program activities for some time. For example, Minnesota DOT began its freight advisory committee in 1996.

At FHWA, freight operations were institutionalized in 1999 with the Office of Freight Management and Operations as part of the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Operations. And then freight planning was institutionalized with joint support from the FHWA Offices of Planning and Freight Management & Operations. Freight was beginning to become institutionally supported and defined as a field or community of practice. Without articulation of freight in transportation legislation that provided for advancing and championing freight; practitioners lacked guidance and programs to support activities, they were without dedicated funding and without policies and the traditional engineering “warrants” that define much of the work in transportation agency’s work.

Understanding the precarious beginnings of this new community of practice, beginning in 2005 AASHTO and FHWA began co-hosting bi-annual meetings of the Freight Transportation Partnership. These meetings bring together freight and transportation officials from state DOTs, FHWA division offices, USDOT Headquarters, the private sector, and metropolitan planning organizations for targeted discussions on enhancing freight transportation throughout the nation. These biennial meetings, along with a variety of regional and state freight meetings, have advanced the sophistication and presence of freight professionals in transportation agencies.

Additionally, AASHTO, FHWA, and NCHRP have conducted a series of studies to better understand transportation’s role in global economics and logistics. These studies, Freight Mobility and Intermodal Connectivity in China and Understanding the Policy and Program Structure of National and International Freight Corridor Programs in the European Union, helped the freight community better understand how global economic and logistics changes are affecting the United States. The EU project demonstrated how a diverse set of cultures can bridge their borders to create a network of multi-country freight corridors.

The freight corridor theme was also embellished with the 1994 signing of NAFTA and 1993 formation of the European Union that emphasized that we are operating in a global economy and that a tri-lateral effort between such integrated trading partners better reflects the reality of our commerce and trade.

Then in 2008, the FHWA Freight Story 2008 captured these global economic changes manifesting across the US transportation system in the major freight corridor maps. The 27,000 miles of major freight corridors identified in this document set the stage for understanding freight as a network of multimodal economic corridors that connect major ports, industrial centers, and population centers as well as areas rich in agriculture and natural resources.

During this same period, and up through 2006 the nation experienced unprecedented economic expansions and related freight and passenger travel that frequently crippled traffic movement. In 2006 total vehicle miles traveled peaked at 265,229 billion miles per month and then plummeted to 219,221 in 2007 and 210,968 billion miles per month in 2009 and is gradually rebuilding towards pre-recession levels. For most travelers as well as transportation professionals, time spent on the interstates confirmed the data. Freight and passenger travel accounts for the bulk of the transportation system, and assuming continued economic growth only meant more traffic delays, congestion and costs. Freight was suddenly the source of much of the nation’s traffic woes, as well as one of its economic engines.

With freight movement often seen as the bellwether of the economy, freight development was used as one of the key recovery strategies from the recession of 2007. Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants are frequently cited as favoring freight projects, and rightly so in terms of economic recover potential. Freight, port, and rail projects have been awarded $977 million dollars—or nearly one-third of the total available funding—of the TIGER investments.

From 1999 with establishment of a freight office at USDOT, to the FHWA/AASHTO freight partnership meetings, to state and regional freight conferences, through a recession that saw the use of freight investments to stimulate the economy, MAP-21 freight initiatives enter the stage and see to institutionalize freight transportation policy, planning, and programs.

What’s Next?

As much discussion and interest as MAP-21 has generated, it is just the start on a national freight policy and an approach to a multimodal freight network. As federal and state agencies work their way through these freight initiatives, especially development of the national freight network, it will be important for states to understand their logistics and freight resources and ensure that federal program areas address our region’s freight issues.

MAP-21 transportation reauthorization represents a significant first step towards policy and program areas about which most freight professionals agree. Yet there is far less detail to the policy to date then desired, and there is a great breadth of interpretation regarding the program criteria that could land the initiatives in any number of unacceptable implementation areas. Additionally, work has already begun on the next round of transportation policy and funding does not appear any more favorable. Using the regional freight study, individual state freight plans, and coordination with freight stakeholders and collateral agencies such as economic development and chamber groups will aid DOTs in positioning their state and this region as a freight powerhouse with documented needs for freight investment.