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Freight Transportation

Freight Transportation

The Vision

The U.S. freight transportation system will ensure the safe, secure, efficient, and reliable movement of goods and bolster the Nations economy while improving environmental quality. Hazardous materials will safely, securely, and efficiently move through the air and on the railroads, seas, waterways, and highways. They will reach their destination on schedule, in time to fuel our automobiles and to heat and cool our homes and offices.

Trends in Freight Transportation

Increasing Demand for Freight Transportation

Cargo containers at a dock
© 2007 David Mcnew/Getty Images
  • Demand for freight transportation in America is increasing in line with our growing population and increased economic activity. As a result, the U.S. is experiencing increased congestion at our borders, our seaports, and on our major surface transportation corridors. During the course of one year, over 19 billion tons of freight, valued at over $13 trillion, was carried over 4.4 trillion ton miles in the U.S.
  • The U.S. transportation system currently moves over 50 million tons of freight worth $36 billion dollars each day on the Nations transportation network.
  • By 2035, tons transported overall are expected to double to over 100 million, placing incomparable pressure on our domestic transportation network.

International Trade

Sea and clouds
  • As a result of unprecedented economic globalization, international trade has grown faster than the overall economy, quadrupling in real value between 1980 and 2004. Approximately 1.7 billion tons of merchandise is estimated to be moving in and out of the U.S. each year, totaling about $1.5 trillion in imported goods and services and $800 billion in exports.
  • U.S. imports and exports are handled in 40 states at over 400 seaports, airports, and land border crossings. At least 125 of these gateways handle 1 billion dollars of trade or more. The five top freight gateways in 2004 were John F. Kennedy International Airport, the border crossing of Detroit, and the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and New York/New Jersey.
  • Since 1990, the value of freight shipments among the U.S., Canada, and Mexico has risen by 170%, growing an average of 8% annually. More than 17 million truckloads of freight crossed U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico in 2005.
  • More than 2 billion tons of cargo have moved through the St. Lawrence Seaway to and from Canada, the U.S., and nearly 50 other nations in the past 40 years. Almost 50% of Seaway traffic travels to and from overseas ports.
  • Today, new economies are emerging, trade routes are shifting, and the U.S. faces new economic challenges.

See figure: Containership Calls at U.S. Ports, 2001–2005.

Congestion and Capacity Constraints

Trucks lined up to exit highway
© 2007 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Inc./Dale Goldan
  • Many U.S. ports are struggling to handle larger containerized vessels and increases in international traffic arriving at their terminals. In the past five years, containerships calling at U.S. ports increased by 9%, and the containerships are increasing in size.
  • Between 1980 and 2002, truck travel grew by more than 90% while lane-miles of public roads increased by only 5%.
  • Air cargo capacity is constrained by the limited availability of new slots at major commercial airports and opposition to airport noise and longer operating hours.
  • Each day, trains in America travel more than 1.5 million miles to deliver goods to the marketplace and transport passengers to their destinations. In 2004, the railroad industry set a new high for freight traffic of over 1.66 trillion revenue ton-miles — up nearly 7% from 2003.


  • About 113,000 people are injured each year in freight transportation. Approximately 10% of injuries are the result of non-highway-related accidents.
  • About 5,200 people died and 92,000 were injured in crashes involving 139,800 large trucks in 2005. This represents one of the lowest large-truck fatality rates in 20 years — despite more trucks traveling more miles.
  • Because most hazardous materials are transported by truck, most incidents related to hazardous materials are on the highways.
  • In the first half of 2007, railroads had 246 fewer train accidents, or a 16.8% reduction, compared to the first six months of 2006.

Hazardous Materials and Pipelines

Tank cars
  • More than 3 billion tons of regulated hazardous materials — including explosive, poisonous, corrosive, flammable, and radioactive — are transported each year. The hazardous materials shipments range in quantity from several ounces to thousands of tons.
  • There are 1.2 million daily hazardous materials movements through the air; on the railroads, seas, and waterways; and over our Nations highways. Many of these shipments require transfer between modes. These shipments frequently move through densely populated or sensitive areas where an incident could result in loss of life, serious injury, or significant environmental damage.
  • Our Nations 2.3 million miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines enable the safe movement of extraordinary quantities of energy products to industry and consumers, literally fueling our economy and way of life. Today, our pipelines are operating near maximum capacity.

Security and Supply Chain Resilience

  • Recently passed legislation requires the Federal government to establish a system to inspect 100% of cargo transported on passenger aircraft by the end of fiscal year 2009 and to screen 100% of the containers entering the U.S. either directly or via a foreign port.
  • Over 79,000 shipments of goods are processed at our Nations borders each day, and each presents a potential risk to National security.
  • We have already witnessed how non-routine events — manmade and natural events and disturbances — can shut down supply chains and threaten the global economy. There is a growing concern about preparing for, preventing, and responding to disruptions while simultaneously ensuring the supply chains resilience and its ability to recover.

Pathway to the Future

Corridors of the Future Program (CFP): CFP, one of U.S. DOTs activities under the Congestion Initiative, has the goal of encouraging States to use innovative financing as a tool to reduce congestion on some of our most critical trade corridors.

Improve Freight Safety Operations: By targeting the most frequent causes of train accidents, focusing Federal oversight and inspection resources more precisely, and accelerating research efforts that have the potential to mitigate the largest risks, U.S. DOT will continue aggressive implementation of its proactive National Rail Safety Action Plan.

Target High-Risk Motor Carriers: U.S. DOT is taking a risk-based approach — targeting motor carriers with poor performance and placing special emphasis on motorcoach companies and carriers registered as hauling hazardous materials. Applying a vigorous compliance review and enforcement program in partnership with States is an integral part of the strategy to reduce crashes involving commercial motor vehicles.

Increase Trade and Efficiency at the Mexican Border: U.S. DOT has initiated a cross-border trucking demonstration project that would expand current border operations to allow up to 100 U.S. trucking companies to operate in Mexico and up to 100 Mexican trucking companies to operate beyond commercial zones in the U.S. This gives U.S. trucking companies the opportunity to compete in a new market; it also reduces costs for U.S. consumers and businesses, increases trade efficiency at the border, and maintains safety on Americas highways.

Address Pipeline Challenges: Although pipelines have long been a primary mode for high-volume transportation of gasoline and other petroleum products, most biofuels used in the U.S. today are transported exclusively by marine vessel, rail, and/or highway. U.S. DOT will facilitate pipeline options by sponsoring research and development, resolving technical issues, and, if necessary, clarifying safety standards.

River and trees

Mitigate Environmental Impacts: Efforts need to be directed at mitigating and better managing the environmental health, energy, and community impacts of freight transportation, including noise, air quality, and congestion.

Cooperative Alliances: U.S. DOT is working to mitigate efforts in the Southern California National Freight Gateway Area. Efforts are underway to create a cooperative alliance with government agencies and other stakeholders. U.S. DOT seeks to identify the transportation solutions needed to improve freight transportation throughput in Southern California while attaining healthful air quality and reducing the impact of freight transport on the community.

Secure the Flow of Goods: To protect the Nation from threats to our safety and economy, we must be vigilant in securing the flow of goods into and out of the U.S. while facilitating legitimate travel and trade. We must invest resources where risk is greatest and where they will have the most significant impact. The U.S. will strengthen its strategic approach to cargo security throughout all modes of transportation.

Control Access to Secure Areas of Transportation Infrastructure: DHS Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program will issue biometric credentials to transportation workers requiring unescorted access to secure physical and logistical areas of the transportation system. The program will improve security by establishing a systemwide common secure credential, used across all transportation modes.

Ensure Informed Public and Private Policy Makers: Develop better data, measurement tools, and planning models to help decision makers establish investment priorities and to measure progress toward increased freight reliability, increased freight throughput, and reduced congestion.

Implement Alternative Financing Solutions: Encourage and distribute the results of state and local governments "best practices" to develop, test, and implement alternative financing of the freight transportation system.

Realizing the Vision: Spotlight on Progress

Improving Freight Safety Operations

"The positive safety trend is, in part, the result of the aggressive implementation of the Departments National Rail Safety Action Plan."

Mary E. Peters
U.S. Secretary of Transportation

As Americas economic engine continues to accelerate, increased demands are being placed on our rails in the form of more trains on our tracks than ever before. In order for this economic progress to continue, safety must remain the core principle that guides operations on our Nations rail system.

The National Rail Safety Action Plan, an aggressive new approach unveiled by U.S. DOT, is focused on improving freight safety operations. The plan targets the most frequent causes of accidents, focuses Federal oversight and inspection resources, and accelerates research into new technologies that can vastly improve safety.

Implementing the plan will help to prevent train accidents caused by human error, improve the safety of hazardous materials shipments, minimize the dangers of crew fatigue, deploy state-of-the-art technologies to detect track defects, and focus inspectors on safety trouble spots.

Under the plan, with guidance from some of the Nations top rail safety advisors, U.S. DOT has developed a new Federal rule to address human factor accidents. Human error is the largest single factor, accounting for 38% of all train accidents over the last five years. The Federal government is also accelerating research into the role that fatigue plays in accidents to help railroads set better crew schedules.

The plan also focuses on the safe transport of hazardous materials by rail. The railroad industry will now provide local emergency responders with a ranked listing of the top hazardous materials transported through their community. And U.S. DOT has launched a new pilot program providing emergency responders with real-time information about the hazardous materials involved in train accidents.

Another key component of the plan is a new National Inspection Plan for deploying inspectors and resources to safety hot spots before accidents occur. As part of a reinvigorated inspection effort, U.S. DOT is investing in special high-tech rail cars that automatically inspect tracks integrity as they roll along the rails.

Corridors for the Future: Reducing Congestion, Improving Freight Efficiency

"We are using a comprehensive approach to fighting congestion along these major interstate routes. What we are doing represents a real break from past approaches that have failed to address growing congestion along our busiest corridors."

Thomas J. Barrett
U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation

The Corridors of the Future Program (CFP), one of U.S. DOTs major congestion relief initiatives, is aimed at developing innovative National and regional approaches to reduce congestion and improve the efficiency of freight delivery.

Through the CFP, States will explore innovative financing as a tool to reduce congestion on some of our most critical trade corridors, improve the flow of goods across our Nation, and enhance the quality of life for U.S. citizens.

U.S. DOT has an important role to play in facilitating and accelerating the development of these corridors and will help project sponsors break through the institutional and regulatory obstacles associated with multi-State and multimodal corridor investments.

Working together with our public and private sector transportation partners, we can raise the overall value and efficiency of these corridors beyond what would otherwise be achievable on a State-by-State basis.

In September 2007, U.S. DOT announced six interstate routes that will be the first to participate in the CFP. The selected corridors carry 22.7% of the Nations daily interstate travel — I-95 from Florida to the Canadian border;

I-70 in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio; I-15 in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California; I-5 in California, Oregon, and Washington; I-10 from California to Florida; and I-69 from Texas to Michigan.

Formal agreements will be finalized by spring 2008, detailing the commitments of the Federal, state, and local governments involved. These agreements will outline the anticipated role of the private sector as well as how the partners will handle the financing, planning, design, construction, and maintenance of the corridors.

"We believe in a layered approach to security. Our aim is to create rings of protection around the ports and throughout the maritime supply chain from point of origin to point of destination."

Michael Chertoff
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security

A Multilayered Approach to Cargo Security

Container ship

Cargo security is one of the Nations most critical transportation security challenges. Cargo that is unloaded in a seaport will move quickly to other modes of transportation a container arriving at a U.S. seaport today can be virtually anywhere in the heartland of America via truck and/or rail tomorrow. Accordingly, security measures must be fully integrated throughout all of the modes of transportation.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government began building a new network of protections — a multilayered, multimodal approach to cargo security.

DHS — in coordination and cooperation with Federal, State, and local agencies, foreign government partners, and the maritime industry has launched key programs to strengthen the security of cargo traveling by ship, plane, truck, and rail, including:

Container Security Initiative (CSI): CSI addresses the threat to border security and global trade posed by the potential for terrorist use of a maritime container to deliver a weapon. The three core elements of CSI are:

  • Using automated targeting tools to identify high-risk containers, based on advance information and strategic intelligence.
  • Prescreen and evaluate containers before they are shipped.
  • Use technology to prescreen high-risk containers to ensure that screening can be done rapidly without slowing down the movement of trade.

Secure Freight Initiative (SFI): SFI is an unprecedented effort to build upon existing port security measures. SFI enhances the Federal governments ability to scan containers for nuclear and radiological materials overseas and to better assess the risk of inbound containers while keeping legitimate trade flowing.

SFI leverages information plus the latest technology to validate the security of goods in maritime shipping containers and reduce the risk of terrorism. SFIs richer pool of container risk data will support more efficient recovery from any attack that might occur.

Port Security Grants: U.S. DOT supports DHS by assisting in awarding grants to port areas for the protection of critical port infrastructure. The program assists ports in enhancing risk management capabilities, heightening maritime domain awareness, and strengthening capabilities to prevent, detect, respond to, and recover from attacks.

Truck Security Grants: The Truck Security Program promotes security awareness among all segments of the commercial motor carrier and transportation community. Through this program, the Nations transportation community will be trained to observe and report any suspicious activities or items that may threaten critical elements of the highway system.