Freight Transportation System Condition & Performance

System Condition  |  System Performance

System Condition

The freight transportation system is stressed by an ever increasing number of vehicles, vessels, aircraft and other conveyances. As segments of the network approach or exceed capacity, maintenance requirements increase while performance declines.

Condition of U.S. roadways by functional system

Pavement smoothness is an indicator of the condition of roads and bridge surfaces. The Federal Highway Administration uses the International Roughness Index to measure the roughness of pavement.  Urban area interstates, other freeways and expressways, and principal arterials showed improvement in pavement smoothness over the 2000-2018 period.  In rural areas, interstates and major collectors showed an improvement in the percentage of pavement mileage considered smooth—2.5 and 7.4 percent respectively—while other principal and minor arterials had increases in road roughness.

U.S. bridges rated in poor condition

More bridges are located in rural areas, but traffic is heaviest on urban bridges. The overall condition of bridges has improved over time. Between 2012 and 2019, the total number of U.S. bridges in poor condition declined by 10,891, a decrease of 19.1 percent. Bridges in poor condition are characterized by the deterioration of bridge elements and reduced load-bearing capacity.  In some cases, weight restrictions are placed on these bridges, which may impact freight movement.

Highway tunnels with limiting characteristics for freight transportation

In 2019, there were 519 tunnels in 40 states and the District of Columbia. For safety and security reasons, restrictions have been placed on the transport of hazardous materials through 129 tunnels located in 23 states. Massachusetts has the highest number of tunnels with restrictions on hazardous materials transport. These restrictions require truck operators to check the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s list of designated and restricted routes for hazardous materials transport. 
 More than one-half of all tunnels have height limitations, with the greatest number located in California.  Tunnel height restrictions can affect the routes taken by commercial vehicle operators, causing them to either take smaller loads or circuitous routes to deliver their goods.

Class I railroad locomotive fleet by year built

In 2018, the median age of the Class I railroad locomotive fleet ranged from 14 to 18 years. That year the fleet included 6,058 more locomotives than it did in 2000—a 30.2 percent increase.  Additionally, the fleet includes 1,722 new locomotives (manufactured after 2014), which account for about 6.6 percent of the total. The number of older locomotives (built before 1995) decreased by 6,704 (43.6 percent) between 2000 and 2018 as they were retired.

Automated Track Inspection Program (ATIP) exceptions per 100 miles

The U.S. freight rail system owns and operates nearly 137,000 rail miles, including 93,058 miles owned by Class I railroads (defined as having operating revenues of at least $489.9 million in 2018).  While U.S. freight rail companies inspect and maintain their tracks, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) conducts inspections to assess the effectiveness of track maintenance and inspection and compliance with Federal Track Safety Standards that cover track alignment, twist and warp, among other items. In 2018, FRA’s Automated Track Inspection Program identified 5 exceptions to design standards per 100 miles of inspected track over the total 83,000 miles examined. Since 2010 the total exceptions per 100 miles inspected decreased by 76.3 percent.

U.S. flag vessels by type and age

U.S. flag vessels include a wide range of shallow draft and oceangoing vessels that are used to move freight and passengers. Shallow draft vessels (barges and towboats) make up the majority of the fleet and operate domestically on intercoastal waterways and river systems. Inland waterways provide an alternative to truck and rail transportation. A single barge can carry an amount equal to 16 railcars or 70 large semi-truck trailers of dry cargo.

The U.S. fleet increased by 1,847 vessels (4.6 percent) between 2008 and 2018. This was mostly due to an increase in the number of liquid barges and towboats. The 45.0 percent increase in new (10 years old or less) liquid bulk barges was largely driven by The Oil Pollution Act (OPA) of 1990, which required double hulls by January 1, 2015. Double hulls provide greater protection to the marine environment from spills caused by collisions or groundings. Over the decade there was a 75.4 percent decline in the number of dry cargo vessels.

Lock characteristics and delays on rivers with 10,000 or more lockages

Locks make it easier for vessels to navigate the uneven water levels of U.S. rivers. Because of increasing traffic and aging locks, vessels may be delayed for hours while locks are shut down for maintenance and repair. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports that the average age of all locks in 2018, was 63 years, with many locks exceeding that average. Between 2000 and 2018, average delay per lockage more than tripled from 64 to 211 minutes.

Condition of airport runway pavement

Most airport runway pavements at commercial, reliever, and select general aviation facilities were in good condition in 2018, with 18 percent rated as fair. Only 2 percent of airport runway pavements were rated as poor.

Gas distribution pipelines by decade installed

Gas distribution pipelines comprise the largest components of the U.S. pipeline system. In 2018 gas distribution pipeline mileage totaled more than 1.30 million miles. Approximately 27.3 percent of U.S. gas distribution pipelines were installed before 1970, and 5.5 percent were installed prior to 1950. Age and degradation of pipeline material increase the risk of leaks and failures. Most old pipelines are located in the Northeast, while the newest pipelines are found in North Dakota, where recent oil and gas development has spurred the installation of new pipeline infrastructure.

System Condition  |  System Performance

System Performance

Travel time and speed are two indicators of transportation system performance. Slower speeds and unreliable travel times caused by congestion, weather, and other factors diminish productivity, increase fuel costs, and reduce operations efficiency. 

Average truck speeds on select Interstate Highways

The Federal Highway Administration and its private-sector partners measure truck speeds and travel times in urban and rural areas across the United States. This information, available in the National Performance Management Research Data Set, shows average truck speeds tend to drop below the base free-flow speed of 55 miles per hour (mph) on interstates near major urban areas, border crossings and gateways, and in mountainous terrain.


Average truck speeds on select metropolitan area Interstates

In 2019, average truck speeds were below 55 mph on 9 of the 25 metropolitan interstates measured. New York City had the lowest average truck speed (48.6 mph), followed by Los Angeles (49.8 mph) and San Francisco (51.8 mph).  It is important to note that the data presented here is an average of both urban and rural interstates within a metropolitan area. Variations in truck speeds on rural versus urban interstates are evident in geographically large and diverse metropolitan areas, especially in the South and West, where constituent counties have considerable rural interstate mileage located near urban and suburban highways. Faster speeds measured on rural interstates can mask lower speeds recorded on urban interstates, which tend to be more congested, on average.

Top 10 metropolitan area congestion rankings

The physical capacity of the U.S. transportation system has not kept pace with growth in travel and commerce. The resulting congestion and delays have significant impacts on passengers and freight shippers. Congestion measures on a national scale are reported in the FHWA Urban Congestion Report based on vehicle probe data. The report tracks congestion measures in the 52 largest metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). The freeway traffic speeds database used by FHWA provides day-to-day travel time in 5-minute intervals for trucks, passenger vehicles, and all vehicles.

Performance measurements for selected corridors on weekdays

The Federal Highway Administration’s Freight Performance Measurement Program monitors performance on highway corridors that have the heaviest freight volumes. Highway system reliability is an important indicator for understanding freight performance and identifying areas in need of operational and capital improvements. Unexpected delays can increase the cost of transporting goods and affect delivery schedules.  A wide range of factors affect travel-time reliability, including congestion, incidents, infrastructure design and capacity, work zones, terrain, and weather. The Buffer Index (BI), expressed as a percent, measures how much extra time (or buffer) a driver should allow to account for variations in system conditions, such as congestion or bad weather, in order to arrive on time for 95 percent of trips. As the BI value increases, reliability gets worse.

Top truck bottlenecks

Truck speed and travel time reliability data can be used to identify and quantify major freight chokepoints and bottlenecks along highways that are critical to the Nation’s freight transportation system. The American Transportation Research Institute monitors 300 freight-significant highway locations using truck position and speed data derived from wireless onboard communication systems used by the trucking industry. Average speeds below 55 miles per hour indicate congestion.

Peak-period congestion on the National Highway System

On weekdays, average speeds during peak periods (between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. and between 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.) are typically lower than those recorded during nonpeak periods. Freight traveling across urban interstate interchanges is affected to the greatest degree by peak-period congestion.

Recurring congestion caused by volumes of passenger vehicles and trucks that exceed capacity on roadways during peak periods is concentrated primarily in major metropolitan areas. In 2015 peak-period congestion resulted in traffic slowing below posted speed limits on 14,608 miles of the National Highway System and created highly congested (stop-and-go) conditions on an additional 10,383 miles.
Assuming no changes in network capacity, increases in truck and passenger vehicle traffic are projected to expand areas of recurring peak-period congestion to 34.8 percent of the National Highway System (NHS) in 2045, compared with 8 percent in 2015. This will slow traffic on 22,709 miles of the NHS and create stop-and-go conditions on an additional 55,795 miles, more than three times that of 2015.

Peak-period congestion on high-volume truck portions of the National Highway System

Congested highways carrying a large number of trucks substantially impede interstate commerce, and trucks on those segments contribute significantly to congestion. On highways carrying more than 8,500 trucks per day, recurring congestion slows traffic on 4,516 miles and creates stop-and-go conditions on another 5,013 miles of the National Highway System.

Assuming no change in network capacity, the number of National Highway System miles with recurring congestion and traveled by a large number of trucks is forecast to increase significantly between 2015 and 2045. On highways carrying more than 8,500 trucks per day, recurring congestion will slow traffic on close to 5,716 miles and create stop-and-go conditions on an additional 27,201 miles.

Annual Truck Hours of Delay per Mile at Select U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico Border Crossings

Using the National Performance Management Research Data Set (NPMRDS), the Federal Highway Administration calculates annual truck hours of delay at 25 U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico border crossings. Delays encountered in both directions and the reasons for the delay vary by individual ports of entry at any given time. Delays may be related to traffic volume, processing capacity, other operational issues, types of inspections performed, among other factors.
Of the 25 border crossings in 2019, the Blue Water Bridge in Michigan recorded the greatest number of annual truck hours of delay for both inbound (12,657 truck hours of delay per mile) and outbound traffic (9,469 truck hours of delay per mile), followed by the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge in New York (11,829 truck hours of delay per mile inbound and 6,949 truck hours of delay per mile outbound). The Laredo, TX border crossings recorded the third highest total truck hours of delay per mile at 6,785 hours for inbound traffic, while Otay Mesa, CA logged the third highest total number for outbound traffic.

Recommended citation
U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Freight Facts and Figures (Washington, DC: 2019).

Freight Facts and Figures, developed by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, is a collection of charts and statistical tables about freight transportation in the United States. These interactive visualizations and tables provide a snapshot of freight movement; the extent, condition, and performance of the freight transportation system; the economic implications of freight movement; and the safety, energy, and environmental impacts of freight transportation.

More from Freight Facts & Figures 

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is the preeminent source of statistics on commercial aviation, multimodal freight activity, and transportation economics, and provides context to decision makers and the public for understanding statistics on transportation.