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Making Sense of FAST’s National Highway Freight Network

Designating roads, understanding conditions and guiding economic development decisions

This article is the second of three highlighting what state and local transportation agencies need to know about the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act’s (FAST) funding provisions for freight projects—why they matter, how states are affected, what is needed to comply and where the funding opportunities exist.

The FAST Act established a new national freight network, which designates portions of the U.S. highway system eligible for state-apportioned federal funding for roadway improvements or upkeep. This National Highway Freight Network (NHFN) introduces a number of requirements that states will need to fulfill and understand. Many states will need to be calculated and cautious about the limited roadway miles they can designate to receive federal resources, selecting those sections that are truly critical for economic development and commerce.

Before jumping into the specifics of the NHFN, all states should recognize that before NHFN funding is distributed, a statewide freight plan needs to be created and approved by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The FAST Act requires that statewide freight plans be reviewed and approved 2 years from the law’s enactment (i.e., December 2017). Typically, these plans take 1 year to draft and another 3 months to be reviewed, so starting them no later than July 2016 is recommended.

According to FHWA’s National Highway Freight Program FAQ, the NHFN includes four subsystems:

  1. Primary Highway Freight System (PHFS): The most critical portions of the U.S. freight transportation system as identified using measurable national data, featuring 41,518 centerline miles (37,436 of interstate and 4,082 of non-interstate roads). FAST requires that FHWA re-designate these miles every 5 years and limits any increase in total mileage to 3 percent. State maps and tables of the PHFS can be found here.

  2. Other interstate roads not on the PHFS: About 9,511 centerline miles of routes that provide necessary access to freight transportation facilities.

  3. Critical Rural Freight Corridors (CRFCs): State-designated rural roads that provide critical access to the PHFS and other interstate roads, ports and other key freight facilities.

  4. Critical Urban Freight Corridors (CUFCs): Same as CRFCs, but in urbanized areas.

Breaking Down NHFN's Most Important Stipulations

Within the NHFN subsets are some key provisions that states should recognize around funding and designation and certification of roads:

  • Fast Act AcronymsDepending on how much of the PHFS lies within a state, there are limitations on NHFN funding. States with PHFS mileage greater than or equal to 2 percent of total PHFS mileage can only use funds for projects on the PHFS, CRFCs or CUFCs. States with less than 2 percent may also fund projects on non-PHFS interstate roads (subsystem No. 2). Refer to FHWA for state maps and tables.

  • FAST sets out specific criteria for identifying, designating and certifying rural and urban corridors. For CRFCs, refer to the criteria in FAST Act (23 U.S.C. 167(e)). CUFC requirements change depending on whether the urban population is more or less than 500,000 residents. If more, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), in consultation with the state, can certify CUFCs via the requirements in Fast Act (23 U.S.C. 167 (f)). If less, the state, in consultation with the MPO, should refer to Fast Act (23. U.S. C. 167(g)).

  • Interstate roads not on the PHFS can be certified as either CRFCs or CUFCs as long as they meet one or more criteria. (see question 16 here for more details).

  • There are mileage limitations on rural and urban corridor designations. A maximum of 150 miles or 20 percent of a state’s PHFS mileage can be designated for CRFCs, whichever is greater. A maximum or 75 miles or 10 percent of a state’s PHFS mileage can be designated for CUFCs, whichever is greater.

  • Finally, it is important to remember that CRFCs and CUFCs need to be identified and certified before NHFP funds can be allocated.

Knowing the freight network requirements is half the battle. As indicated above, federal funding is limited so it is critical for states to use tough judgement about the corridors targeted for improvement.

How to select the right rural and urban corridors? First, open up a productive dialogue with private-sector users. Good stakeholder engagement will allow a state to understand what industries are most important, current truck volumes and commodity flows, and the roads that are most vital to the local economy.

Next, states should talk to their adjacent neighbors and gather consensus on where the important connections are for interstate freight movement.

Finally, states should recognize that, by designating a statewide freight network, a policy signal is sent about what is important to the state economy. By planning for freight, a state is issuing guidance to cities and MPOs about the most vital roads and can influence local funding dollars to enhance connections to the state freight transportation system and guide land use and economic development decisions.

In the final article in our series, we will examine the FAST Act’s freight investment plan requirement and offer advice about prioritizing projects in statewide freight plans.