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Minnesota’s Freight Needs and Issues

The current condition and performance of Minnesota’s freight system is generally good. However, there are significant needs and issues that should be addressed in the near term and others that will require attention in light of changing economic conditions. Freight system performance measures for system condition and performance will help guide resource investment to respond to these changing conditions.

This chapter describes the condition and performance of Minnesota’s freight system and identifies freight system performance measures. This chapter also identifies needs, issues, and opportunities on the freight system and how each of these are linked to the goals of this plan.

Condition and Performance of the Freight System

The condition and performance of Minnesota’s freight transportation sys­tem was assessed to identify critical needs and issues. Freight system performance measures are critical to accomplishing this task as they allow measurement of key attributes of the system and comparison across geography and time. This plan identifies performance measures and uses them to understand the condition and performance of the highway system for freight. The condition and performance of the highway portion of the freight system was evaluated in three ways:

  • Safety-related measuresare designed to improve the safety, security, and resilience of the freight transportation system. Safety is at the forefront of planning and investment decision-making. Some specific efforts focus directly on rail safety.
  • Infrastructure condition measures of freight system condition provide information about the suitability of physical infrastructure for freight transportation and can help inform system maintenance and preservation programs.
  • Mobility measures cover a wide range of aspects of the system, including delay, congestion and overall reliability of the highway system. These measures assess the length and dependability of freight trips.

Knowing where needs and issues (such as chokepoints and bottlenecks) exist on significant freight highway corridors can inform policy and investment decision-making. The success of Minnesota’s economic engine relates to the ability of the multimodal freight system to convey goods safely and efficiently.

Freight System Performance Measures and Indicators

As part of this plan, measures and indicators that gauge the condition and performance of Minnesota’s freight system were identified. This process was undertaken for several reasons:

  • MAP-21 transportation legislation. MAP-21 requires the U.S. DOT to identify national-level performance measures for various performance management areas including Freight Movement and Economic Vitality, Safety, Pavement Condition and Bridge Condition. State DOTs and Metropolitan Planning Organizations will be required to implement these highway-focused performance measures.
  • MnDOT is active in performance measurement. MnDOT has a well-developed, established set of performance measures and will be active in meeting the MAP-21 requirements when the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and the Final Rule are released. This plan provides an opportunity to help prepare MnDOT for upcoming freight performance measure requirements.
  • Improved tracking of freight activity. MnDOT has an aggressive performance measures program, but the lens through which freight is examined is not as robust as other areas (e.g., state highway operations) due to historic federal requirements (or lack thereof) and the limited amount of available data with which to track freight system activity. Beyond federal requirements, this plan explores ways existing MnDOT measures could be viewed through a “freight lens.”

The process of identifying freight performance measures employed a Performance Measures Ad Hoc Working Group comprised of performance measure experts from MnDOT and other agencies. That group reviewed and recommended highway focused freight performance measures and indicators as shown in Table 3.1 . The process is detailed in a supplemental Technical Memo – Freight Performance Measures .

These measures and indicators will move into broader consideration within MnDOT and be incorporated into MnDOT’s Annual Transportation Performance Report . As part of this plan, the measures were used to evaluate the condition and performance of the highway portion of the freight system in Minnesota.

Table 3.1 - Freight System Performance Measures
Safety Number of Fatalities Safety, Environment/Community T Yes
Safety Fatality Rate Safety, Environment/Community T Yes
Safety Number of Serious Injuries Safety, Environment/Community T Yes
Safety Serious Injury Rate Safety, Environment/Community T Yes
Safety Severe Crashes Involving Trucks Safety, Environment/Community T Yes
Safety Incidents at Highway/Railroad Crossings Safety, Environment/Community T, R Yes
Asset Management Interstate Pavement in Good and Poor Condition based on MnDOT's Ride Quality Index (RQI) Infrastructure Condition T Yes
Asset Management Non-Interstate National Highway System (NHS) Pavement in Good and Poor Condition based on MnDOT's Ride Quality Index (RQI) Infrastructure Condition T Yes
Asset Management Percent of Deck Area on Structurally Deficient Bridges Infrastructure Condition T Yes
Asset Management NHS Bridges in Good, Fair and Poor Condition based on Deck Area Infrastructure Condition T Yes
State Highway Operations Annual Hours of Truck Delay (ATHD) (Pending final U.S. DOT rulemaking) Mobility T No
State Highway Operations Truck Reliability Index (RI80) Mobility T No
Freight Indicators Total domestic shipments to, from or between Minnesota locations Demand, Economy T, R, W, A, P Yes
Freight Indicators Freight by Mode Minnesota (tons) Demand, Economy T, R, W, A, P Yes
Freight Indicators Freight by Mode Minnesota (value) Demand, Economy T, R, W, A, P Yes
Freight Indicators Freight by Mode Minnesota (ton miles) Demand, Economy T, R, W, A, P Yes
Freight Indicators Heavy Commercial Vehicle Miles Traveled Demand, Economy T, R Yes
Freight Indicators Heavy Commercial Average Annual Daily Traffic (HCAADT) by Corridor Demand, Economy T Yes
Freight Indicators Annual Rail Shipments in Minnesota (tons) Demand, Economy R Yes
Freight Indicators Annual Container Lifts in Twin Cities (number) Demand, Economy R Yes
Freight Indicators Annual Port Shipment Tonnage (tons) Demand, Economy W Yes

*Modes – Truck (T), Rail (R), Water (W), Air (A), Pipeline (P)

Highway System Condition and Performance for Freight

The condition and performance of the highway system and its suitability for use for freight transport was assessed using the measures identified in Table 3.1. Absent established targets/thresholds data were reviewed related to each measure to flag “hot spots” related to safety, asset management, state highway operations and freight indicators. A summary of the findings is shown in Table 3.2. A detailed description of the evaluation is found in a supplemental Technical Memo – Freight System Needs, Issues and Opportunities. Highlights of the evaluation are provided following Table 3.2.

Table 3.2 - Overall Assessment of Multimodal Freight System
Safety Number of Truck Fatalities, Injuries - It is unknown how this category will trend in the future absent historic data evaluation. Overall traffic fatalities experienced a slight increase in the most recent year but have generally been on a downward trend. MnDOT should take strategic actions to reduce highway and truck-related crashes.
Safety Accidents/Incidents at Highway/Railroad Crossings - Although previously declining, increases in rail traffic between 2012 and 2014 led to increased accidents/incidents at highway/railroad crossings. MnDOT should take strategic actions to reduce these incidents.
Asset Management Ride Quality Index (RQI) Decrease The recent improving trend will cease in the future, and rough pavements will make Minnesota’s roads less attractive for trucks to use.
Asset Management NHS Bridge Decks in Poor Condition Decrease Similar to ride quality, the recent improving bridge condition trend will cease in the future, making Minnesota’s bridges less attractive for trucks to use (and potentially unsuitable for larger, heavier trucks).
State Highway Operations Annual Hours of Truck Delay (ATHD) (Pending final U.S. DOT rulemaking) Increase Nationally, annual hours of truck delay is increasing, adding cost to businesses and consumers. This delay is greatest in the largest urban areas in the U.S., including the Twin Cities.
State Highway Operations Truck Reliability Index (RI80) and Average Truck Speed (Pending final U.S. DOT rulemaking) Decrease Urban areas, including the Twin Cities, will have the most congestion and lowest travel speeds in the future. This will get worse as more passenger vehicles and trucks use these roadways, especially during peak hours, and trip times may become less reliable.
Freight Indicators Freight by Mode in Minnesota (tons) Increase Increasing tons transported equates to the need for a truly multimodal system to serve industry needs. For example, more long haul rail movements will occur in the future and will require handling facilities in the Twin Cities.
Freight Indicators Freight by Mode in Minnesota (value) Increase More trucks traveling on the system, in particular making first- and last-mile deliveries of high valued consumer goods, will require local connections.


In Minnesota and the nation, safety is at the forefront of planning and investment decision-making. One of Minnesota GO’s principles is to “systematically and holistically improve safety for all forms of transportation” through the integration of safety in all that the agency does. Traditionally, passenger vehicles have been the focus of state safety programs, but understanding whether freight movements have different risks is critical.

Truck Fatalities and Injuries

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety actively maintains a comprehensive crash database from police reports. The database indicates whether a commercial vehicle was involved. Year 2014 data for the trunk highway system is shown in Table 3.3, and the five-year trend is shown in Table 3.4. The number of crashes involving commercial trucks that involve only property damage is more than double crashes that involve personal injury. The number of commercial vehicle crash injuries and fatalities is split fairly evenly among interstates, U.S. highways and state highways in Minnesota.

Table 3.3 - Crashes Involving Commercial Trucks on Major Roadways - 2014
Interstate Highways 5 286 1,084 1,375
U.S. Trunk Highways 13 188 488 689
State Trunk Highways 22 213 679 914
Total Crashes 40 687 2,251 2,978

Source: Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Office of Traffic Safety1

Table 3.4 - Trend in Crashes Involving Commercial Trucks on Major Roadways
2014 40 687 2,251 2,978
2013 42 657 2,109 2,808
2012 34 571 1,604 2,209
2011 37 592 1,736 2,365
2010 47 661 1,736 2,487

Source: Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Office of Traffic Safety. Only inlcudes crashes on Interstates, US Trunk, or State Trunk Highways.

MnDOT’s 2015 Annual Transportation Performance Report provides total vehicle fatality information dating back to 2006. According to the report, 2015 had the most fatalities since 2010, showing a sharp reversal of the previous three year trend of decreasing fatalities. While a substantial long-term reduction in fatalities was realized, the stagnant trend over the past five years and the increase in 2015 fatalities are reasons for concern.

Railroad Crossings

Rail crossing safety is of increasing concern in large part due to the increase in crude-oil-by-rail movements traveling through the state from North Dakota. Rail crossing safety is addressed in the 2016 Minnesota State Rail Plan and assessed in more detail for crude-oil-by-rail corridors in the 2014 MnDOT report Improvements to Highway-Rail Grade Crossings and Rail Safety.

The Federal Railroad Administration houses at-grade rail crossing statistics for the nation’s railroad network by state. Ten years of accident/incident data were extracted to determine whether rail crossing safety is improving or in decline. Figure 3.1 highlights this data.

Figure 3.1 - 10-Year Accident/Incident Overview by Calendar Year, Minnesota

10-Year Accident/Incident Overview by Calendar Year, Minnesota

Source:Federal Railroad Administration

In 2014, there were 59 highway-rail crossing incidents, resulting in 10 fatalities and 24 injuries in Minnesota. Of the 59 incidents, 51 occurred at a public at-grade road crossings of railroads. Minnesota has 4,300 public at-grade crossings throughout the state. The state has approximately an equal number of private grade crossings. The figure shows a downward trend in incidents for several years with a recent increase in overall incidents but a decline in injuries.

Asset Management

Measures of freight system condition provide information about the suitability of physical infrastructure for freight transportation and can inform system maintenance and preservation programs. One of Minnesota GO’s principles is to “strategically maintain and upgrade critical existing infrastructure,” a key part of which is the highway portion of the designated Principal Freight Network.

Pavement Condition

MnDOT’s office of Materials and Road Research annually evaluates the trunk highway pavements to monitor pavement condition. Pavement condition is tracked and predicted by a Ride Quality Index, Surface Rating, Pavement Quality Index and Remaining Service Life. Each index captures a different aspect of the pavement’s health and is used to predict the need for future maintenance and rehabilitation. This data is used to establish longer term investment needs to meet pavement condition performance measures established for the Interstate, remaining NHS and non-NHS systems.

RQI is measured on a scale of zero to five based on how pavement smoothness is perceived by a typical driver, with new projects having an index of over four. Indices of two or below are considered “poor.” The RQI for the 5,200 miles on the designated Principal Freight Network was reviewed, and it was found that 72.2 percent of the network rated “very good” (RQI > 3.0), 25.2 percent of the network rated “fair” ( 3.0 ≥ RQI > 2.0), and 2.6 percent of the system rated “poor” (RQI ≤ 2.0).

Minnesota’s most recent Annual Transportation Performance Report provides ride quality information dating back to 2008. In recent years, ride quality has significantly improved on all state highways and has come close to reaching the target set by MnDOT. However, absent no new revenue, ride quality is expected to experience a long-term decline.

Pavement condition is one of the 14 investment categories of the 20 year Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan (MnSHIP). Specific pavement projects are selected and prioritized in the four-year State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP)- Statewide Performance Program (SPP). The funding level for the SPP is established based on the estimated funding needed to reach MnSHIP’s NHS performance objectives. Although there is no distinction for routes with heavy vehicles, the NHS is Minnesota’s primary freight network and any impact heavy vehicles have on those routes is reflected in the pavement condition indexes related to traffic loading.

Bridge Condition

MnDOT actively inspects bridge deck and structural conditions for the 3,600 NHS bridges throughout the state. Deck ratings and descriptions of conditions are based on the National Bridge Inventory scale of zero to nine. Bridges with a rating of four or below are considered to be in poor condition, and there are 26 NHS bridges in “poor” condition, with the majority of those in MnDOT’s Metro District.

Minnesota’s Annual Transportation Performance Report also provides bridge condition information dating back to 2008. The report notes that bridge condition has made great improvement in recent years due to major rehabilitation efforts. MnDOT’s own target of having 2 percent or less of its bridges in poor condition is close to being met; however, similar to ride quality discussed above, absent new revenue, the number of bridges in poor condition is expected to approach the federal target of 10 percent. The federal target is a proposed value under the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) National Performance Management Measures. Prior to MAP-21, state DOTs were not required to measure condition, establish targets, or assess progress towards targets. MnDOT’s target for bridge condition is more stringent than the proposed federal target.

State Highway Operations

Freight system operations can cover a wide range of aspects of the transportation system including delay, congestion and overall reliability of the highway system. It is useful to understand how these issues affect the highway portion of the designated Principal Freight Network, which includes more than 5,200 miles of roadways throughout the state and provides connections between key facilities and modes. Knowing where these issues, especially areas of congestion or bottlenecks, occur on freight-significant corridors can inform policy and investment decision-making.

Annual Hours of Truck Delay (AHTD)

In the 2012 Urban Mobility Report, the Texas Transportation Institute calculated that transportation congestion costs U.S. residents about $121 billion in delay and fuel expenses and 5.5 billion hours of extra time spent in transit. Of this congestion cost, 22 percent ($27 billion) was attributed to the effect of congestion on truck operations, which in turn affects business operating expenses, supply chain reliability and ultimately costs to consumers. This measure is based on the total amount of extra travel time (delay) for trucks, a per-truck hour cost of delay, and state-specific fuel costs. Of the regions evaluated, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area ranked 24th in the U.S. in annual truck delay, 17th in truck commodity value and 19th in total annual delay. As demand for goods and services continues to grow, the issue of AHTD will expand as shippers seek out efficiencies in their supply and distribution chains.

Truck Reliability Index and Average Truck Speed

Minnesota’s highway system, particularly in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, is becoming increasingly congested. While congested segments are present throughout the state, all of the truck system bottlenecks based on either speed or reliability are in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. With a high concentration of freight-related businesses and multiple intermodal facilities, the Twin Cities area is a major hub for freight movement in the state. However, the high amounts of traffic through this area can often lead to congestion and safety issues. Many businesses noted to MnDOT that recurring congestion in the metro area leads them to modify their production and shipping timelines to avoid the most congested periods.

Using the National Performance Management Research Data Set (NPMRDS), the Truck Reliability Index and average truck speed on the designated Principal Freight Network were determined for Minnesota. The NPMRDS is a vehicle probe-based travel time data set acquired by the FHWA to support its Freight Performance Measures program. The NPMRDS consists of average travel times reported every five minutes on the National Highway System. A series of analyses were conducted using a sample period of October 2014 during the AM peak (5-10 a.m.), midday peak (10 a.m.-2 p.m.), and PM peak (2-7 p.m.) hours. Findings are included as part of the Freight System Performance Measure Technical Memo described in Appendix A.

Minnesota’s Annual Transportation Performance Report provides similar information dating back to 2008. The report notes that while congested miles decreased slightly during the recession, in recent years the percentage of congested miles has been at historic highs on Twin Cities urban freeways. It is expected that as passenger and truck traffic increases in urban areas, so too will the percentage of congested roadways.

Freight Indicators

The link between transportation and the economy is becoming an increasingly large part of national conversations highlighted by the freight provisions included in MAP-21 and the FAST Act. The success of Minnesota’s economic engine is related to the ability of the multimodal freight system to convey goods safely and efficiently. The level of freight activity (or demand) on that system, and whether it is increasing or decreasing, can help inform where investments are needed to ensure the system continues to perform at acceptable levels.

Freight system demand indicators such as tons, ton-miles and value of goods provide a foundation for understanding how the system is used and context for other performance measures, such as safety or asset management measures. Minnesota’s Annual Transportation Performance Report provided this type of information since 2002, examining value of freight and ton-miles of freight, by mode. The historic trends shown in Figure 3.2 reflect the forecasts discussed in Figure 2.1 and Figure 2.2, which provide current and projected future freight demand by weight (tons) and value, illustrating the continued use of truck traffic and the growth of rail traffic in the state.

Figure 3.2 - Minnesota 2012 Transportation Results Scorecard (Freight)

This image is Minnesota’s 2012 Transportation Results Scorecard for Freight. For more information, please see the Annual Transportation Performance Report, MnDOT, 2012.

Source: Annual Transportation Performance Report, MnDOT, 2012

Freight System Needs and Issues

Quantitative and qualitative data were analyzed to determine the needs of and issues with the multimodal freight system in Minnesota. This analysis included the performance assessment previously described, stakeholder feedback and other outreach conducted during plan development, and review of previous freight related plans and studies developed by MnDOT. The needs and issues identified are organized in this section by plan goals:

  • Support Minnesota’s Economy
  • Improve Minnesota’s Mobility
  • Preserve Minnesota’s Infrastructure
  • Safeguard Minnesotans
  • Protect Minnesota’s Environment and Communities

The process used was intended to identify areas where Minnesota may have weaknesses related to the goals of this plan and help generate a prioritized list of existing/future problem areas to be addressed. Additional detailed information is found in a supplemental Technical Memo – Freight System Needs, Issues and Opportunities.

Stakeholder Outreach

Some of the most useful information on freight system needs and issues came from stakeholders. Appendix B provides a description of outreach techniques used. Each type of outreach served a distinct purpose and engaged key freight industry stakeholders in the public and private sectors, within and outside Minnesota’s borders. Two outreach techniques yielded significant useful information for identifying Minnesota’s freight system needs and issues: the 2014 freight summit and an online survey.

Freight Summit

Held Dec. 5, 2014, this one-day event fostered executive-level engagement between government and industry. Through small and large group discussion, attendees identified critical freight system needs and issues and initiated the development of Minnesota’s Freight Action Agenda. Small group discussions focused on five topics:

  • Public-Private and Public-Public Partnerships
  • Minnesota’s Strategic Freight Network
  • Minnesota Supply Chains
  • Chokepoints on Minnesota’s Freight System
  • Strengthening Minnesota’s Economic Competitiveness

Through interactive discussions, each small group provided insight into strengths, weaknesses and opportunities related to each topic.

Online Engagement

The plan outreach included an interactive online survey to gather information on the current state of the multimodal freight system in Minnesota. The survey was distributed to target audiences comprised of government and business freight stakeholders via email. It was also announced at various freight-related meetings and forums and available on MnDOT’s website. The survey gave participants the opportunity to comment on issues they believed to be of importance to the freight industry. Participants were given an interactive map and asked to identify specific locations on the multimodal transportation system where they experienced issues or felt there was a need for improvement.

Approximately 600 individuals participated in the survey, 234 of which were actively involved in the freight industry. Of the 234 freight industry respondents, approximately 63 percent worked in the private sector and the remainder worked in the public sector.

Using the interactive map, participants identified 476 specific locations where the freight system had an issue or needs improvement. In some instances, a location was noted to have multiple issues (e.g., chokepoint and poor pavement condition). The majority of the identified locations were related to the highway system. The rail system had the second most issue locations identified, and the waterway and aviation system had the smallest number of issue locations identified.

Support Minnesota’s Economy

Making freight system investments is important, but it is critical to identify and pursue the most strategic freight system investments that will produce the desired carrier, business and public benefits. Done well, investment in the freight system will contribute to a more competitive economy. In this context, this plan uncovered several needs and issues related to supporting and enhancing Minnesota’s economy.

  • Need to tell a compelling story. Freight is often a hidden component of the economy, not well understood by the general public unless something goes wrong. Being able to explain why a project is important and what it achieves are critical in obtaining funding and public support. Industries and jobs are reliant on freight movement. Emphasizing individual commodity “stories” may help make freight movement issues more apparent and relevant.
  • Need to understand changing economic conditions and new market demands. Changes in the global economy will have an effect on Minnesota’s industries and how they use the transportation system as it relates to the type, quantity and destination of many goods. For example, there will be demand for agricultural commodities in distant markets such as China and Brazil, and the transportation system needs to provide connections to do this. Meanwhile, core and traditional markets that have been served by Minnesota’s freight system, such as coal on the rail and port systems, are losing share to new commodities such as crude oil, natural gas and petroleum products. As the state grows its advanced manufacturing industries, air cargo and specialized trucking services may play a larger role. Minnesota must be prepared to respond to these and other supply chain shifts and be proactive in understanding future opportunities that the state can use to grow local industries and continue to diversify the state’s economy.
  • Need to identify freight projects that create a return on investment. The volume and value of freight moving on a corridor are not the only indicators of its significance. Identifying infrastructure that provides, or could provide, a large return on investment is critical in Minnesota. Small improvements that help rural and remote areas, such as infrastructure enhancements at a small airport, may produce employment and economic benefits that justify a project even though the total volume or value of freight moved is small. This may also help develop clusters and strategic locations outside of large urban areas where freight improvements can drive economic activity.
  • Need to capture value of through traffic. Minnesota is a “through” state in terms of overall freight flow. Most of the goods moving in Minnesota are arriving from and bound for locations outside of the state; this is particularly true for the freight rail system. This means Minnesota’s infrastructure and communities bear the costs of goods movement while the state’s economy reaps few of the benefits. Future actions should consider ways to attract development that help minimize through trips, such as investments in transload or intermodal2 facilities, so goods can stop and start in Minnesota.
  • Need for improved and expanded intermodal services. The Minneapolis-St. Paul region is the only location in Minnesota where rail intermodal service (the haulage of containers and trailers) is available, and Chicago and the Pacific Northwest/Western Canada are the only markets that are served directly. Stakeholders have remarked that oftentimes containers are unavailable for loading in Minnesota, and sometimes it is more cost effective to truck goods for transload into containers in Chicago, rather than be served directly in Minnesota.

    Although efforts to provide service in other parts of the state have not been successful, stakeholder conversations reveal a strong desire for intermodal service in Duluth and the western and southern parts of the state, as well as additional terminal capacity and services in the Twin Cities. Intermodal service is density driven, and given that a broadly used competitive service must typically operate on a daily basis, the volume requirements are substantial. Particular interest has developed around the need for service from Minnesota to the Pacific Northwest gateways. For a terminal served by a Class I railroad, the minimum volume threshold is around 50,000 units, while for a short line railroad it may be less.
  • Need to understand how modes are connected - first-/last-mile connectivity. First- and last-mile road, railway and port connections are the front door for Minnesota’s industries. Identification of Minnesota’s Principal Freight Network determined that the multimodal freight system requires seamless connections between modes to provide efficient access to the network. The process of designating principal rail, port, airport and pipeline facilities highlighted that there are numerous significant freight generators in the state where the modal systems need to be better connected. Review of Minnesota’s designated NHS intermodal connectors highlight that the majority of the freight facilities identified meet FHWA’s primary or secondary criteria for NHS intermodal connector designation but are not formally designated, or are only designated for passenger travel.
  • Need to address systemic and multimodal problems. Freight is multimodal, and systematic issues such as need for regulation, management or education in one mode will affect multiple modes. For example, a lack of qualified truck drivers, caused partially by education and regulation shortfalls, exaggerates the lack of capacity in the trucking industry. These effects are spread across modes – i.e., a trucking shortage impacts the rail industry. These issues need to be viewed at the multimodal system level and solutions may bridge more than a single mode. For example, the lack of consistency between Minnesota and surrounding states on commercial vehicle size and weight regulations hinders efficient truck operations and may be a deterrent for business in Minnesota.

Improve Minnesota’s Mobility

Minnesota’s freight system needs to offer access for all freight users and reliable service with minimal chokepoints. A number of needs and issues related to improving the mobility of Minnesota’s freight transportation system were identified as part of this plan and are summarized here.

  • Need to recognize and adapt to evolving supply chain operations. Changing definitions of “value” have led modern supply chains to operate on a just-in-time schedule. This is true across industries—deliveries direct-to-customers are just as time-sensitive as shipments to industrial plants. In the past, industries held materials at a site as part of a strategic reserve; now, less inventory is stored on site, decreasing the ability of a business to endure a supply chain disruption. This has changed the nature of the freight transportation system, increasing the need for resiliency and redundancy across all transportation modes and along the supply chain.
  • Need to address chokepoints within and outside Minnesota that impact the state. Chokepoints within and outside of Minnesota have a negative impact on freight movement within the state. Minnesota’s top 10 highway bottlenecks related to delay and average speed are identified in the Freight System Needs, Issues, and Opportunities Technical Memo.

    Although rail trackage covers most regions of Minnesota, there are some significant bottlenecks. The Hoffman Junction east of the Union Depot in St. Paul is used by BNSF, CP and UP and carries 120 trains per day. Bottlenecks in the Minneapolis Junction and corridors to the north cause delays for the Northstar Commuter Rail service and for freight shipments. The East Metro Rail Study3 funded jointly by the three Class I railroads and Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority, identified specific Hoffman Junction-area capacity improvements that are being systematically pursued. Other bottlenecks near La Crescent and Moorhead have worsened statewide system performance. Double tracking segments within the bottlenecks, adding/increasing siding length, improving signal systems and rehabilitating outdated structures will alleviate these problems as freight shipments and passenger rail demand grow.

    Rail congestion, specifically in Chicago, Ill. and at the BNSF La Crosse, Wisc. complex, were cited as problems that create backups through Wisconsin, Minnesota and beyond.
  • Need to develop freight system redundancy.Infrastructure across all modes is aging, raising the possibility that a critical link will fail. Temporary closures due to weather (especially high and low water on the inland waterway system) are also a concern. Redundancy, either via alternative routes or alternative modes, should be a consideration in freight system planning. Whenever possible, routes and modes that can allow the flow of goods to continue even when a standard route is not available should be identified. Redundancy also allows for options when a particular mode or route is unsuitable due to safety concerns or competing demands.
  • Need to make better use of existing modes. Capacity over the entire multimodal freight network is stressed. Delays along one route or on one mode spread to other networks and affect both passenger and freight travel. For example, increased oil, gas and agriculture rail shipments along BNSF’s corridor from North Dakota to Minneapolis negatively impacted the on-time performance of Northstar Commuter Rail and Amtrak service. This has reduced ridership on these routes and led to increased vehicle usage in congested highway corridors. Redundancy across modes and system-wide capacity expansion are needed.

Preserve Minnesota’s Infrastructure

Growth in freight transportation will continue to stress the freight infrastructure in Minnesota. As noted in the performance assessment, pavement ride quality and bridge deck conditions will deteriorate in the future, making Minnesota’s roadways less attractive for goods movement. The rail and waterway systems have similar infrastructure condition needs and issues that must be addressed in the future to continue their viability. In this context, the plan uncovered several needs and issues related to preserving the freight transportation infrastructure in Minnesota.

  • Winter Roadway Maintenance: Minnesota’s cold and snowy climate can often cause significant delays to the freight system in the winter months. MnDOT plows nearly 12,000 miles of state highways and interstates with a fleet of approximately 800 snowplows. During one-on-one meetings many freight businesses in Minnesota stressed their need to transport goods within a specified timeframe. Any delays directly affect their efficiency and profitability. Most businesses were complimentary of MnDOT’s role in snow plowing operations.
  • Need to preserve and improve highway system condition. In an online survey distributed during plan development, the most common highway infrastructure issues identified by freight industry respondents were poor pavement conditions, inefficient interchanges and inadequate roadway capacity. Industry also noted the need for continued high-levels of winter roadway maintenance. The majority of the infrastructure issues identified are in and around the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area, with additional issues located along major freight corridors throughout the state. In and around greater Minneapolis-St. Paul, infrastructure issues include preservation needs such as inadequate and outdated interchanges. Pavement conditions were an issue highlighted throughout the state. Within greater Minneapolis-St. Paul, road and bridge conditions were identified as an issue by survey respondents.
  • Need to achieve FRA Class 2 track or better on the rail system. One of the goals of the 2016 Minnesota State Rail Plan is to upgrade main line track (all Class I-III railroads4) to 25 miles per hour minimum speed (FRA Class 2 track), as warranted. This is needed to ensure commercial viability and safety for rail operators to meet the needs of the current and future shippers that rely on them. This is primarily an issue for short line railroads where infrastructure conditions tend to be inferior to those of the large railroads (for instance, if the track is not well maintained or there is lighter weight rail, inferior tie and ballast conditions and no active signaling system). As a result, mainline train speeds are lower. Although these conditions are usually adequate for existing business, many carriers struggle to maintain track at minimal commercially acceptable levels and are unable to accommodate some modern rolling stock (rail equipment).
  • Need to achieve 286,000-pound compliance on the rail system. Another goal of the 2016 Minnesota State Rail Plan is to improve the freight rail network (all Class I-III railroads) to support the use of 286,000-pound railcars throughout. This weight limit has become the industry-wide standard, and the viability of lines and shipper’s facilities that do not have this capacity will diminish over time. In Minnesota there are 453 miles of railroad that currently cannot handle 286,000-pound railcars. Most noncompliant lines are restricted from carrying any heavy railcar in excess of 263,000 pounds. With the large railroads having moved from 263,000 to 286,000 pounds as the standard maximum car weight, the ability to handle standard modern rolling stock is becoming a particular concern; without accommodation of these heavier cars, the competitive position of many short line railroads will be substantially compromised.
  • Need to maintain adequate navigable depth. The need for periodic dredging – the removal of the built-up underwater sediment – is an ongoing issue for the Mississippi River System and the port and harbor areas on the Great Lakes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) bears the responsibility for preserving the waterways, including dredging. In 2012, the USACE spent $9.3 million for dredging the Minnesota Mississippi River System; however, a backlog of $12.7 million in needs exists. Similarly, $5 million was spent on dredging in the Great Lakes in Minnesota, but additional needs remain. Disposal of dredging material is also challenging, and finding proper ways to reuse an ever-accumulating amount of waste material will continue to be a challenge.
  • Need for lock and dam maintenance. On the Mississippi River System and the Great Lakes there is a backlog of projects to improve the lock and dam network. Located at the head of both the Mississippi River and Great Lakes systems, Minnesota relies on lock and dam infrastructure to connect its industries to suppliers and customers. Most locks on the marine system are more than 50 years old, leading to more frequent (scheduled and unscheduled) closures for repairs on the Mississippi River System as a whole, which impacts Minnesota shippers. Additionally, the Sault Ste. Marie locks in Michigan, which serve as the connector between the Port of Duluth and other destinations, need either repair or replacement. There is no redundancy for the largest lock, which handles 70 percent of the traffic. According to a Congressional estimate, the impact of a 30-day unscheduled outage of the Sault Ste. Marie locks would be $160 million.5
  • Need for freight-friendly design standards. Stakeholder feedback throughout plan development noted that MnDOT and its transportation partners should ensure that roadways, in particular intermodal connectors, are designed so they are adequate for heavy and frequent truck movements. This means that pavement and geometrics (such as travel lane width, turning radii, and vertical and horizontal bridge clearances) are designed to provide added ease of navigation for large vehicles. This also means that any potential obstacles to goods movement (e.g., roundabouts) are considered in context prior to construction.

    While many design criteria, such as pavement thickness, passing lanes and increased shoulder widths are desirable for roadways that experience high levels of freight activity, the implementation of these features may be costly if additional right of way is required or if other site-specific characteristics make implementation difficult. These standards should be primarily considered on Minnesota’s Principal Freight Network facilities.
  • Need for enforcement of truck size and weight standards. MnDOT’s Commercial Vehicle Office administers oversize-overweight (OSOW) permits for trucks traveling on the trunk highway system in the state. In Minnesota, individual counties are responsible for permitting loads on their county road networks. Generally, loads that exceed a width of 8 feet 6 inches, a height of 13 feet six inches, a length of 75 feet zero inches and a gross vehicle weight of 80,000 pounds require an OSOW permit. A common issue in Minnesota and most other states is that the number of enforcement staff at the state and local level trained in commercial vehicle operations is insufficient to reliably enforce the OSOW permitting program. Permitting requirements are fairly complex and include a number of exceptions and provisions based on commodity types, truck configurations, and travel plans. One resulting issue is that unpermitted loads can cause significant amounts of damage to state and local roadways.

Safeguard Minnesotans

Safety is a high priority for public and private organizations involved in freight transportation. The plan identified several needs and issues related to safeguarding Minnesotans.

  • Need for improved safety at highway-rail grade crossings. As shown in the performance assessment, highway crossing safety is a concern due to a history of incidents with crossing vehicles, trucks, bicyclists and pedestrians. Significant improvement has been made with the safety of rail crossings in Minnesota, but many of the currently installed warning devices need to be replaced by 2030.

    As noted in the 2016 Minnesota State Rail Plan, an analysis of grade crossing active warning devices estimated that approximately 270 signals are 20 years old or older (as of 2006), and the normal lifespan for an active warning device is 25 years. Aging active warning devices are increasingly difficult to maintain due to out-of-date technology, often requiring entirely new warning devices to be installed at a cost of $200,000 to $500,000 each. Many signals were installed in the 1980s and 1990s, and MnDOT estimates that within 20 years almost all of the 1,400 warning devices will need upgrading. At current values, it is estimated that $280 million over 20 years will be needed, with the capacity to install 70 major grade crossing devices each year. This does not include new installations for high-speed passenger corridors, quiet zones and the proposed expanded deployment of an additional 170 devices on paved county roads.
  • Need to take proactive actions related to crude-oil-by-rail movements. As described in the 2016 Minnesota State Rail Plan, the ongoing North Dakota oil boom resulted in a rapid increase in crude oil and silica sand transported by rail through Minnesota. This increase in traffic has significant impacts on rail and roadway congestion, safety and quality of life. Despite volatility and uncertainty in crude oil prices, crude-oil-by-rail unit train activity is expected to continue.

    Concerned about the large increase in Bakken oil shipments and the associated safety implications, the 2014 Minnesota Legislature directed MnDOT to conduct a study of highway-rail grade crossing improvements for rail corridors carrying unit trains of crude oil and other hazardous materials. MnDOT investigated areas along these corridors where safety could be improved to reduce public exposure to derailments, spills and fires. The study identified needs including grade crossing signal systems and alternative railroad grade crossing improvements. The study noted 683 at-grade rail crossings where Bakken crude oil passes. To find the most at-risk crossings, an aggregate score was calculated using a combination of geographic information system population analysis near crossings, federal crossing safety standards, and frequency of crude oil traffic on the respective rail line. Of the 100 crossings, 40 were researched further. Improvement recommendations for these 40 were made based on the aggregate score and cost-benefit feasibility of each crossing. Depending on the importance and the aggregate score of each crossing, recommended improvements included closing non-essential at-grade crossings, upgrading passive warnings to active signals, improving active signal protection with more effective safety treatments, or constructing new grade separations along the lines.

Protect Minnesota’s Environment and Communities

While Minnesota residents and businesses rely on freight to provide their day-to-day needs, this activity sometimes leads to unintended impacts that should be mitigated. Some of these issues relate to air quality and noise, the presence of trucks in neighborhoods and incompatible land uses adjacent to each other. Needs and issues related to protecting Minnesota’s environment and communities are summarized below.

  • Need to provide and preserve land for freight-focused development adjacent to freight infrastructure. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and other parts of the state, businesses and shippers have had difficulty obtaining land with rail and port access. In some cases, zoning is becoming restrictive toward industrial and commercial uses, and in other cases, citizens have rallied to prevent expansion in rail traffic and operations due to noise and environmental concerns. Additionally, if land development patterns continue to emphasize dense residential and commercial development where historic freight activities are present, older industrial space will be converted to these higher value uses, pushing many industries that are dependent on goods movement to locations on the periphery of the region or out of the region altogether. For many of these businesses, there will still be a need to access the central core areas (e.g., for intermodal or water port access), and these emerging development patterns will create a need for trucks to travel longer distances from distribution centers and corporation yards that are far from urban centers in order to make deliveries during limited daytime hours.
  • Need to plan for truck routes/operations in urban areas. Urban areas are where the most conflicts between trucks and other motor vehicles occur. The conflicts occur on the highway system and on the local roadway network where trucks travel to make pickups and deliveries. Truck route designation can benefit urban areas in several ways including focusing through truck trips, providing direct connections to freight generators, and minimizing neighborhood cut-through traffic.

    Two trends will influence how trucks deliver goods and the routes they use. First, with more new distribution centers being built on large tracts of available land located further from consuming markets, the average trucking distance is likely to increase, often on commuter corridors already operating within congested areas. Second, in large metropolitan areas such as Minneapolis-St. Paul, smaller distribution centers are being sited in central locations to serve same-day and within the hour delivery windows. Each of these trends have trucks competing with passenger cars during peak delivery times. To operate safely and improve efficiency, truckers operate during off-peak hours whenever possible. The designation of truck routes can focus truck movements where they need to go and help minimize conflicts between passenger vehicles and other roadway users.

    The implementation of Complete Streets can also impact truck routes. In some cases, bike lanes and pedestrian pathways are being designated on truck routes, which create safety issues and concerns. Trucks may need to cross bicycle lanes to access on-street loading zones or double-park due to lack of sufficient on-street parking. This can create particular hazards for bicyclists and pedestrians.
  • Need to preserve and manage abandoned rail corridors. Many unused rail corridors are preserved as recreational trails. Converting these corridors back to active rail use is often difficult and costly due to encroachment, regulations and public opposition. Preserved rail corridors held in the State Rail Bank are managed and evaluated for possible future transportation uses. These uses could involve trails but could also provide right of way for relocation and elimination of road or rail traffic in other parts of the region.

Freight System Opportunities

With proper investments and policies, Minnesota’s residents and businesses can realize greater benefits from the freight system in the future than they do today. Technologies, operational strategies and planning practices are available to ensure a world class freight system while providing residents – even those who live near major goods movement infrastructure – with a high quality of life and economic opportunity. There are several real-world opportunities that were identified as focus areas prior to constructing plan recommendations. These opportunities have a high degree of overlap. A well-crafted plan of investments and policies will be mutually reinforcing for many of these opportunities briefly described below.

  • Use the freight system in Minnesota as an economic driver. The freight system is a conduit for economic activity in the state. As transportation system funding is lacking nationwide, it is important to identify investments that preserve and improve those parts of the system that drive the economy. This plan designates Minnesota’s Principal Freight Network and makes suggestions for how the network should be used. Several of these recommendations relate to using the freight network to focus new development, prioritizing investments on the network, and providing funding to projects on the freight network.
  • Explore use of public-private partnerships. Much of the freight transportation system is owned and operated by the private sector and the goods conveyed on all systems are conveyed by private companies; therefore, public-private partnerships are a natural opportunity for MnDOT. These partnerships may be formal or informal in nature but should focus on communication, collaboration and consensus building on actions to be taken. These actions may include needs identification and project development, as well as funding and implementation.
  • Use advanced technology. There are many opportunities to use advanced technologies to improve operational efficiency, safety and mobility. Some of these include positive train control, weigh-in-motion systems, dynamic message signs for traveler information, global positioning systems, and intelligent truck parking.
  • Integrate freight considerations in public agency decision-making. From strengthening and promoting interagency, multi-state and public-private partnerships to using that information in planning and funding decisions, Minnesota’s public agencies should more fully include “freight” in their ongoing activities. As an example, freight should be more thoroughly considered in the day-to-day activities throughout MnDOT, not just within the Office of Freight and Commercial Vehicle Operations. Freight can be incorporated by annual tracking of the freight system performance measures developed as part of this plan, strengthening consideration of freight during project and investment planning, providing assistance to transportation planning organizations, continued coordination with FHWA, and maintaining an effective freight research program in partnership with the University of Minnesota.

1 https://dps.mn.gov/divisions/ots/reports-statistics/Pages/crash-facts.aspx

2 “Transload” is a general term for moving goods from one mode to another. Typically, it refers to bulk or other goods moving between truck, rail, and/or barge via trailers, hoppers, or flatbeds. “Intermodal” specifically refers to moving containerized goods (either international or domestic) via truck, rail, and/or ocean carrier (less commonly via barge).

3 https://www.ramseycounty.us/your-government/projects-initiatives/east-metro-rail-continuity-project

4 Class I, II, and III are railroad designations by the Surface Transportation Board (STB). In order to be considered a Class III railroad, the railroad’s operating revenues must be between $0 and $20 million. For Class II, it is $20 million or more, and for Class I, it is $250 million or more.

5 http://www.mlive.com/business/index.ssf/2015/03/congress_to_army_corps_priorit.html