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Chapter 5 Economic Characteristics of the Freight Transportation Industry

The freight transportation industry employed 4.6 million people in 2014 (table 5-4) and comprised 9.5 percent of the Nation’s economic activity as measured by gross domestic product (GDP). 

Table 5-1. Transportation Fixed Assets:  2000, 2005, and 2010-2013

Fixed transportation assets can be privately owned (32.2 percent) or publicly owned (67.8 percent). Freight railroad facilities and services are almost entirely private, while private-sector trucks operate over public highways. Air-cargo services in the private sector operate in public airways and mostly public airports, and ships in the private sector travel public waterways and serve both public and private port facilities. Pipelines are mostly privately owned, although significantly controlled by public regulation. In the public sector, virtually all truck routes are owned and maintained by state or local governments. Airports and harbors are typically owned by public authorities, although terminals are usually owned or managed by private operators. Air and water navigation is mostly controlled by the Federal Government, and safety is regulated by all levels of government.

Total private and public fixed assets grew from about $29.6 trillion in 2000 to $50.9 trillion in 2013 (current U.S. dollars). Transportation equipment and structures (private and public) accounted for 43.7 percent of total U.S. assets in 2013. The components of transportation fixed assets and their 2013 values are private transportation equipment ($1.17 trillion), private transportation structures ($739 billion), and government highways and transportation structures ($4.03 trillion).1

Figure 5-1. Value of Transportation Infrastructure Construction Put in Place:  2002-2014

Federal, state, and local governments are a major source of funding for transportation infrastructure construction. In 2014 the value of government-funded transportation construction put in place was $113.7 billion of the total $125.7 billion, which accounted for 90 percent of total spending on transportation construction. Approximately two-thirds of public sector funding went to highways and streets, the remainder supported the construction of airport terminals and runways, transit and water transportation facilities, and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

Figure 5-2. For-Hire Transportation Services Contribution to U.S. Gross Domestic Product by Mode:  2013

In 2013 for-hire transportation contributed $481 billion (current dollars) to U.S. GDP. Of that total, the for-hire trucking mode contributed the largest share (27 percent), followed by air (17 percent). The Bureau of Transportation Statistics Transportation Satellite Accounts show that transportation services provided by nontransportation industries for their own use, referred to as the in-house transportation sector, are almost as large as that for the for-hire sector.

1 See the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Fixed 1 See the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Fixed Assets tables 1.1, 2.1, 3.1s, and 7.1b for total and transportation fixed assets data ( fixed assets include both passenger and freight modes.

Table 5-2. Economic Characteristics of Transportation and Warehousing Establishments in Freight-Dominated Modes:  2007 and 2012

All told there were nearly 214,000 transportation and warehousing establishments (excluding rail) in 2012, with more than one-half of those primarily engaged in trucking. Revenue generated by trucking accounted for 32.7 percent of transportation and warehousing sector revenue, while warehousing accounted for a small percentage of the total.

Table 5-3. Economic Characteristics of Freight Railroads:  2000 and 2012

Railroads include Class I (national), Class II (regional), and Class III (local) carriers.  In all three classes of railroads, revenue grew while employment declined between 2000 and 2011. 

Figure 5-3. Productivity in Select Transportation Industries: 1987-2014

Between 1987 and 2014, output-per-hour worked more than doubled in line-haul railroading and the air transport industry. (Line-haul railroads do not include switching and terminal operations or short-distance/local railroads.) Long-distance, general-freight trucking grew by 53 percent over the same period. (Long-distance, general-freight trucking establishments exclude local trucking and truck operators that require specialized equipment, such as flatbeds, tankers, or refrigerated trailers.)

Table 5-4. Employment in For-Hire Transportation Establishments Primarily Serving Freight:  2000, 2010, and 2012-2014

Employment in the truck, rail, water, and pipeline industries have grown since 2000, while air transport has experienced a decline in the number of employees.  Between 2000 and 2014, air transport has declined by 28.2 percent.  Trucking in 2014 accounted for nearly 30.5 percent of total transportation and warehousing sector employment.

Table 5-5. Employment in Select Freight Transportation and Freight Transportation-Related Occupations:  2000, 2010, 2013, and 2014

Freight transportation jobs are not limited to for-hire carriers. Truck driving is by far the largest freight transportation occupation in the United States, and many drivers work for retailers and other establishments with shipper-owned trucks (i.e., in-house transportation). There were approximately 2.83 million truck drivers in 2014; about 57.5 percent of these professionals drive heavy/tractor trailer trucks, 28.2 percent drive light/delivery service trucks, and about 14.3 percent are driver/sales workers.

Table 5-6. Average Hourly Wages in Select Freight Transportation-Related Occupations:  2000, 2010, 2013, and 2014

Average hourly wages for different freight-related occupations vary widely.  In 2014, ship engineers and captains and pilots of water vessels are among the highest paid freight transportation occupations.  The highest wage occupations employ relatively few workers while lower-wage occupations account for millions of workers.

Table 5-7. Producer Price Indices for Select Transportation Services:  1990, 2000, 2003, and 2010-2014

From 2010 to 2014, the prices charged for transportation purchased from carriers and support activities have gone up in all industries shown in table 5-7. Rail transportation prices increased by 19.4 percent and air prices by 13.4 percent.

Figure 5-4. Monthly Diesel and Jet Fuel Prices:  January 1999-June 2015

Both diesel and jet fuel prices began a sharp decline in late 2014 that continued into the fall of 2015. The decline followed a 3-year period of price stability. Fuel prices had peaked in June 2008 but declined during the economic recession. They then climbed back to the levels that were maintained between 2011 and 2014 before declining again.