Overview. As the worlds largest trading nation, the United States imports and exports more merchandise than any other country. This report provides a broad overview of changes in U.S. international merchandise trade since 1990 and how transportation modes and services enable this trade, which is a vital part of the U.S. economy.
From 1990 to 2001, U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), overall merchandise trade, and the merchandise trade deficit all experienced substantial growth, although at varying rates. The relative importance of export and import merchandise trade to the U.S. economy also increased during this period. Between 1990 and 2001, the ratio of the value of merchandise trade to GDP rose from 13 to 22 percent in inflation-adjusted terms. Furthermore, U.S. merchandise exports compared to the production of tradable goods has risen, meaning goods exports have become more important to domestic production despite the decline in manufacturings share of GDP.
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks exacerbated an economic slowdown already in progress, resulting in a marked decline in U.S. international trade and freight movements. U.S. merchandise trade was down 6.2 percent in 2001, with most of the decline taking place after the attacks. Compared with the same period in 2000, the value of overall U.S. merchandise trade dropped 1.7 percent from January through August 2001, but dropped 14.7 percent between September and December. While all modes were affected by September 11, air cargo saw the largest decline in freight activity (13 percent by value), followed by trucking (8 percent), maritime (3 percent), and rail (2 percent). Pipeline activity increased by 12 percent.
In the aftermath of the attacks, transportation security concerns have focused on the vulnerability of the U.S. transportation system. Because large volumes of traded merchandise from all over the world enter the United States daily on ships and airplanes, and on trucks and trains from Canada and Mexico, transportation security has become a top priority with growing attention focused on international import traffic. For example, in 2001, about 19 million containers were used to transport imports into the United States, 6 million by ocean vessel and 13 million by truck and rail from Canada and Mexico. The attacks changed how government and industry view cargo security and both are seeking ways to enhance security for traded goods from their foreign points of origin to final destinations within the United States.
Shifts in Major Trading Partners. The United States trades with nearly 200 countries worldwide. In 2001, 15 countries alone accounted for 77 percent of the value of merchandise trade. One-third of this trade was with Canada and Mexico, our partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Due to strong growth in NAFTA and Asian Pacific trade, relative to that with Europe, the share of trade passing through border crossings and freight corridors with Canada and Mexico and with West Coast ports has increased, as has related container and intermodal traffic.
Modal Trends. Over 1.6 billion tons of international merchandise moved to and from the United States in 2001, accounting for 10 percent of the 16 billion tons of freight moved on the nations transportation system. Even though maritime transportation is the predominant mode for moving U.S. international freight (whether measured by weight or value), freight transported by other modes, notably air and truck, has grown faster. While air cargo accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. merchandise trade tonnage, it accounts for over one-quarter of the value of the trade. The number of truck crossings into the United States from Canada and Mexico grew at an average annual rate of 5 percent per year since NAFTAs inception in 1994 and is expected to continue to climb, especially between Mexico and the United States once all NAFTA trucking provisions are fully implemented. Security concerns and demands now affect all modal transportation networks and the ports and border crossings serving U.S. international freight flows.
Trends in Major Commodities. Since at least 1980, manufactured goods share of the value of U.S. merchandise trade has increased, affecting the growth in containerization and the demand for intermodal transportation. Although the United States continues to produce, export, and import vast quantities of natural resources, such as coal and petroleum products, and raw materials, such as lumber, these goods share of the value of trade declined as the commodity mix of U.S. international trade changed. Growth in higher-value manufactured goods was a major reason for the rise in air cargo and emergence of U.S. airports as world leaders in handling this cargo. Also, U.S. trade in transportation-related goods (motor vehicles, aircraft, rail locomotives, and ships and boats) nearly doubled between 1990 and 2001. A $24 billion surplus in aircraft and parts trade was the single highest surplus of any commodity in U.S. international trade in 2001. Changes in the commodity mix of U.S. trade and our major trading partners affect transportation choices and the border and port facilities that handle the trade.
Transportation Services Trade. U.S. international trade in freight transportation and airport and seaport services generates substantial revenues for U.S. carriers and ports. Freight and port services facilitate domestic and international movement of freight and are essential to U.S. global competitiveness. Between 1990 and 2001, the United States maintained a trade surplus in airport and seaport services as the volume of merchandise imports and the payments by foreign carriers for using U.S. ports rose. However, the United States had a deficit in freight services. This deficit grew in large part because of the sustained growth of the U.S. economy that spurred demand for imported merchandise transported by foreign carriers. The freight services deficit contrasts with the surplus in overall U.S. services trade. Air carriers accounted for most of the receipts for exports of U.S. freight services, overtaking ocean carriers in 1997.
Factors of Change and Continuity. Many factors have influenced the pace of expansion in U.S. international merchandise and transportation services trade, including growth and changes in the U.S. population and economy, increased internationalization of the U.S. economy, advances in transportation and telecommunications technology, easing of regulatory structures in international transportation markets, and reduction of trade barriers. Shifts in the composition of the U.S. economy toward more services, increased dependence on imports for manufactured products, and changes in major trading partners likely will continue to affect goods movements within the United States for many years to come. While the pace of trade with Canada and Mexico will affect the relative roles of trucking and rail, growth trends in trade with Pacific Rim nations will impact U.S. containerized cargo throughput and intermodal traffic. Also, trends in U.S. direct investment abroad and foreign direct investment into the United States will continue to complement the movement of merchandise trade and affect U.S. transportation services carriers.
Trade Growth and Concerns. With the growth in U.S. international merchandise trade, the condition and performance of the nations freight transportation infrastructure, such as local access roads at ports, at-grade rail crossings, dredging and channel depths, and availability of truck-only lanes for port access, will continue to be an important transportation concern. Landside access to U.S. ports, congestion on highways around major gateways, delays at border crossings, and environmental and community concerns may also continue to affect the movement of merchandise from, to, and within the United States. Government and industry efforts to enhance transportation security while ensuring the efficient flow of goods are likely to affect freight throughput at the major U.S. gateways, although the full impacts of the security measures remain uncertain.