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GAO on freight transport: focus on community congestion impact

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3501697246_da4c3fa9a2_zThe Government Accountability Office says developing a national freight strategy should pay attention to the impact of congestion on communities.

GAO’s report (GAO-14-740), released on 26 September, found that recent trends in freight flows, if they continue as anticipated, “may exacerbate congestion issues in communities, particularly along certain corridors.”

As of 2012, the latest year for which data is available, national freight rail and truck traffic had approached the levels reached in 2007, prior to the economic recession, the report continues. “Certain trends related to specific commodities have affected rail flows, including increases in domestic crude oil production. A key negative impact of increasing freight flows is congestion at highway-rail grade crossings, where road traffic must wait to cross the tracks when trains are passing.”

This is an important issue in the Pacific Northwest, where environmental and community activists have raised the grade crossing congestion and delay issue in their opposition to proposals to transport coal and oil on trains as much as one-mile long through local communities to port terminals in the region.

For example, the GAO report cites a Miami-area study that found that rail crossings in the area caused delays of roughly 235,000 person-hours per year at a cost of $2.4 million. “Although several communities we visited had documented long-standing concerns over freight-related traffic congestion, state and local stakeholders we met with had varying levels of quantified information regarding the extent of the impacts or costs to the community.” In contrast to the Miami study, another study GAO reviewed included some information on train counts, but did not document hours of delay or any costs associated with such delays.

The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) efforts to implement the freight-related provisions of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) are still underway, “but so far do not fully consider freight-related traffic congestion,” GAO said.

“MAP-21’s freight policy goals do not explicitly include addressing freight-related traffic congestion, but MAP-21 requires DOT to identify best practices to mitigate the impacts of freight movement on communities in a national freight strategic plan, which is due in October 2015. MAP-21’s requirements and DOT’s efforts so far do not fully establish the federal role or identify goals, objectives, or performance measures in this area, which may limit the usefulness of the National Freight Strategic Plan.

Consider: DOT is currently developing the Freight Transportation Conditions and Performance Report, which is to support the National Freight Strategic Plan, GAO said. For this and other documents, DOT established a broad goal to reduce freight-related community impacts. “However, DOT did not identify clear goals, objectives, or measures related to freight-related traffic congestion in local communities due to a lack of reliable national data. Thus, a clear federal role has not been established. High-quality data are essential to supporting sound planning and decision-making. Without reliable national data, it will be difficult for DOT to establish goals and objectives and to define the extent of freight-related traffic congestion and measure performance.”

GAO recommended that DOT should clarify the federal role for mitigating local freight-related congestion in the National Freight Strategic Plan, including a strategy for improving needed data. DOT has concurred with the GAO recommendations.

For more information on the report, contact Susan Fleming at (202) 512-4431 or flemings@gao.gov.

Image: Waiting for the Coal Train to Pass by John Lillis via Flickr cc

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Written by William DiBenedetto

6 October, 2014 at 5:05 am

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