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Growing Congestion at Trade Gateways a Concern for Transportation Planners

Posted October 09, 2020

Released to little notice and none of the fanfare that in recent years has made the subject of infrastructure somewhat of a running joke in Washington, the U.S. Department of Transportation last month virtually announced the federal government’s new National Freight Strategy Plan.
Busy Land Border Crossing with Bridge, Traffic

Mandated by the now-extended Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, the plan is focused on boosting U.S. economic competitiveness through long-term investments in the infrastructure associated with the key aspects of the national freight system. 

Trade Gateways

As one of its areas of focus, the NFSP notes there are 467 ports of entry for international cargo in the United States, including airports, land border crossings, and seaports. In 2018, the top 25 ports of entry by value handled nearly two-thirds of the $3.89 trillion in total U.S. freight trade with the rest of the world.  
Top 25 U.S. Trade Gateways

These 25 ports of entry include five land border crossings, such as Laredo, TX and Detroit, MI; 10 airports, such as John F. Kennedy International Airport and Chicago O’Hare; as well as 10 maritime ports, including the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the Port of New York and New Jersey.

Congestion & Bottlenecks

While acknowledging the important contribution of international trade to the U.S. economy, the NFSP points out that steadily increasing volumes of trade also puts added demands and pressure on the country’s ports, border crossings, and intermodal corridors. Growing congestion at the nation’s trade gateways could hinder the ability of U.S. firms to integrate global supply chains and compete globally, the plan warns.

Turning to the border more specifically, the NFSP notes that America’s biggest trading partners are its next-door neighbours, with Mexico and Canada accounting for nearly a third of all U.S. foreign trade in 2019. North American trade has also increased significantly in recent decades, intensifying congestion at border crossings, says the plan.  

Border crossings are “a frequent bottleneck in the freight transportation network,” it states, while also noting that nearly $721 billion in trade passed through U.S. land ports of entry in 2017.

“Required security inspections and high volumes truck traffic at land ports of entry between the U.S. and its Canada and Mexico neighbors create delays that are disruptive and costly to manufacturers, shippers, and, ultimately, consumers,” the NFSP argues, adding that “predicting the time needed to transit a border crossing with any degree of certainty is often difficult.”

Strategic Objectives

Improving the collection of trans-border freight data and border crossing delay data is identified in the NFSP as one of the Transportation Department’s “Medium-Term to Long-Term Strategies.”

Other strategic objectives for trade gateway infrastructure over the next roughly five-year window include the enhancement of freight flows on first- and last-mile connectors at major ports and development of a methodology for identifying freight bottlenecks across modes.

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