Has Anyone Seen The National Freight Strategic Plan?

National freight strategic plan

Submitted in 2015, the USDOT’s draft of a National Freight Strategic Plan invited public comment until April of 2016. Eighty-six comments later, the plan appears, here in early 2019, to have disappeared altogether. As a solemn marking of the third anniversary of the project’s last known activity, we’ll revisit  OTNA staff’s reading and commentary of the Plan. Were we overly critical? In review, we still don’t think so. Truth be told, it was barely a plan at all — really more of a report.

So you ask: If it fell so short, why not just say “good riddance?” Why bring it up again? Because it was, however flawed, an important beginning… a beginning of a conversation that the transportation sector, and their customers, and their communities… all need and want desperately to have.

Is it possible that U.S. transportation’s governing body is too encumbered for whole-systems planning? It seems to be the case. That’s why — and what — we’re working on here at OTNA. And you’re invited.

Our Analysis of the Draft National Freight Strategic Plan – 2016

The National Freight Strategic Plan (NFSP) aims to serve as an outline of key issues, but its lack of depth and overall passive orientation will not lead to meaningful progress. Increasing pressures from population growth and environmental degradation compel us to think more systemically and powerfully in advancing transportation’s vital role.

For issues as critical as freight transportation, we need to integrate well-meaning government efforts with intelligent private-sector business perspectives to create not just goals and visions, but action plans and commitments. As a matter of fact, if one were to consider a plan as a living document that includes specific measures, baselines, targets, accountabilities, commitments, and action steps, the National Freight Strategic Plan does not qualify as a “Plan”.

What we have come to accept as a “Plan”, including the NFSP, is more of a report on the past, plus trends and projections, and not a plan. In doing so, we abdicate responsibility for transportation system development to the commercial marketplace that is perfectly capable of creating individual projects, but not efficient systems. The entire NFSP relates to the future of goods movement as a pre-determined fate for which citizens must simply pay the economic, environmental, and social costs that the marketplace doesn’t include, because after all, everyone benefits.

This is not a strategy for national power and it is certainly not an approach that will deliver the urgent 21st-century policy goal of economic activity that supports sustainable growth and a higher quality of community life. OnTrackNorthAmerica is providing leadership on the three key developments that are critical to enhancing the NFSP’s contribution to achieving that goal. The first is to identify the full life-cycle costs and benefits of transportation investments at the individual project and systems’ level via OnTrackNorthAmerica’s Lifecycle Project. The second is to transform transportation reports and projections into Transportation Action Plans. The third is to implement a new innovative method for collective multi-stakeholder thinking, planning, and action, called IntelliConference.

So let’s dive into the NFSP to further illuminate the specific elements which need to be augmented or added.

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The (Only) Path to a World-Class Transportation System is to Design it Sustainably

by Michael Sussmanrail-cropped

Building productive transportation systems can only be accomplished by designing them sustainably. We can’t overcome unavoidable limits on clean air, stable climate, and land by just spending more money. Our new imperative must be moving freight while minimizing its impact on the environment, open space, highway capacity, and the overall costs of building and maintaining infrastructure. Given the differential between trucks and trains in the space they require for moving goods, the environmental impact of their relative fuel usage, and the efficiency of steel versus concrete and asphalt, it is critical that we shift into designing systems that optimize use of these two modes.

The market can only support this if business, government, and community cooperate. This can be accomplished by aligning around whole-system lifecycle measures and sustainable investment strategies.

Considering the pressures of increasing population on land use, transportation congestion, and the environment, three significant evolutions must occur: 1) include shorter supply chain options in planning, 2) ship as much as sensible by rail to benefit from its energy and space efficiency, and 3) proactively think and plan for reduced dependence on fossil fuels. Accomplishing these transformations must include win-win approaches that support existing transportation providers through this transition. Our existing truck, rail, water, and pipeline infrastructure is too vital to strand assets.
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