Long Haul: The Crucial Link Between Freight and Economic Development

More and more, transportation planners are recognizing that a new approach is needed.
August 24, 2015
By Daniel G. Haake  |  Contributor
A nationally recognized transportation expert and consultant

As the nation continues to emerge from the Great Recession, state and local governments remain focused on economic development and job creation. A key takeaway from this period is the growing understanding of the nexus between transportation and economic development --in particular, the movement of freight as not only an indicator but a key driver for economic activity.

Traditionally, transportation planning efforts have focused on moving people. The emerging field of freight mobility planning puts goods and commodities in the spotlight. How do manufacturing facilities receive supplies and ship their finished goods? How do groceries reach the neighborhood corner store? Our transportation system moves more than 54 million tons of freight daily -- about 63 tons per person per year. Think that's a lot? The Federal Highway Administration estimates that the total will increase 45 percent by 2040.

To account for this anticipated growth, many states and metropolitan areas have developed freight transportation plans. Traditionally, these plans have been dedicated to improving congestion, safety and reliability on heavily used truck corridors. By doing so, agencies hope to create a business environment that decreases transportation costs, resulting in overall economic growth. But there is a more strategic way to encourage growth through investments in transportation infrastructure.

The global marketplace is increasingly more complex, competitive and uncertain. States must not only understand how their transportation systems support their key industries but, more importantly, what role those systems play in their respective global supply chains. To remain competitive, these supply chains must be efficient and reliable. A decision made halfway around the world can have a dramatic effect on roadway volumes in rural America.

As a result, many agencies have taken a much more focused approach to developing their freight plans. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), for example, is soon to complete its Texas Freight Mobility Plan. TxDOT has taken a very deliberate approach to aligning the plan's development with the state's targeted industries, particularly those that support the export growth that economists cite as a major contributor to the national economic recovery. "For over a decade, Texas has been the number-one exporter in the United States," notes Marc D. Williams, TxDOT's director of planning. "As such, our plan focused on supporting infrastructure critical for continued expansion of Texas's export sector."

Transportation agencies traditionally have focused on highways, their condition and whether volumes are up or down. While this analysis is important, TxDOT made sure to also capture freight mobility from the users' perspective to understand the dynamic nature of its state's supply chains. This allowed TxDOT to develop criteria to support selection and prioritization of the right freight-focused projects.

Transportation decision-makers are increasingly focused on innovation and increased accountability. Forced to do more with limited transportation resources, their planning methods are evolving. Advances in freight mobility planning are just one example of how forward-thinking transportation officials are working to find the right answer, not just an acceptable one.