If you want an idea of just how bad traffic congestion is getting these days, consider this: Between 1980 and 1998, vehicle travel jumped 72% in the U.S. However, the number of road miles only increased 1%.

That statistic alone bear’s mute witness to the horrendous bottlenecks building up on America’s roads – not to mention the nation’s waterways, runways, and rails. It’s also just one example of why freight movement in this country is getting more difficult every year, says Gary Maring, director of the Office of Freight Management and Operations (OFMO), a department within the Federal Highway Administration.

“Much of the freight in this country moves in and out of metropolitan areas because that is where the demand is,” he said at a recent press briefing, held at the Department of Transportation’s Washington headquarters. “However, we’re finding that where we have high freight flows, we also have correspondingly high traffic congestion and poorer air quality.”

On top of that, Maring said, is a serious disconnecting in the way shippers and carriers map out logistics strategy and the way government entities plan out the transportation infrastructure to support those strategies.

“There’s quite a different perspective between the private and public sector when it comes to transportation,” he explained. “Shippers and carriers have a national and often global focus in terms of logistics. Yet the public and government entities relay on local and even regional decision making to build roads and approve warehouse construction. We often find that local decision makers may not appreciate the importance of, say, a highway connector road to the logistical needs of the rest of the country – how improvements to that road benefit the nation in terms of easier freight movement.”

OFMO’s concern is that this disconnect could have serious implications as freight movement is expected to double across the entire nation by 2020. Its freight forecasts indicate that U.S. domestic trade will increase 87% by 2020, with U.S.-International trade increasing 107%. In some parts of the country, that flow may be even higher. Los Angeles, for example, expects to see a quadrupling of freight movement, as its two ocean ports and airport are major gateways for Asia-Pacific freight coming into the U.S.

With such huge growth looming over the country’s transportation infrastructure, OFMO is trying to engage all the ‘players’ in freight transportation – both public and private – to try and head off potential freight bottlenecks.

“We are trying to find the areas where the most constraint will be on freight transport – where the largest magnitude of problems will be,” said Maring. “That’s why we’ve engaged in several outreach meetings to bring all the parties involved together, to get them talking to each other and try and find solutions together.”

OFMO has coordinated four “outreach” meetings this year, involving shippers and carriers, along with national, state and local government authorities, to pinpoint freight problems so as to start finding solutions to them.

The findings, while expected, were nonetheless grim:

  • Freight productivity and reliability are in jeopardy. Failure to address this will significantly influence the nation’s economy and quality of life.

  • The situation is of national and local interest, with real improvement involving many parties and demanding the Federal government to exercise leadership.

  • Better use of al modes of freight transport will come by improving intermodal choice.

  • The time for decision-making and action on road improvements, construction, etc. must be shortened.

  • Funding is the key: risk must be shared between the public and private sector.

“Freight is an end-to-end issue,” added Maring. “You have to look at it that way – not at just the individual modes involved. That’s why we need to ‘co-mingle’ private and public funds for freight transportation projects, because neither side has enough to do it successfully alone.”

OFMO added that managing the challenges facing the freight transportation industry won’t be easy, either. With freight flow predicted to double by 2020, more pressure will be placed on already crowded borders, ports of entry, and intermodal connectors. Customer expectations are also higher as a result of “just-in-time” delivery strategies, but community resistance to freight capacity additions remains strong. Environmental issues, such as diesel truck emissions, also play a strong role in direction freight transportation development.

Yet the single greatest challenge OFMO has discovered through its outreach efforts centers on funding. Private and public sector participants agreed that current planning and financing methods are not sufficient to address the unique concerns of the freight industry.

“There is a heavy, heavy emphasis on the need for funding via regional entities that are multi-state and multi-jurisdictional,” said Maring. “Because the private sector needs to adapt to business changes quickly, sometimes reorganizing logistics strategies in a matter of months. However, government tends to plan out road, rail, and other transportation investments over 20 years. We need to reconcile those different planning perspectives.”

OFMO’s ultimate goal is to use its research to reshape the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act in 2003, so future funding will be placed in the right areas.

“There’s been an institutional mismatch between the public and private sector in terms of freight transportation infrastructure perspective for some time now,” said Maring. “Only recently have we really become aware of it. Hopefully, with our research, we can put freight needs squarely on the radar screen.”