Transportation Planning for the Future
Nationally, the east - west transportation corridors linking west coast ports with the interior U. S. have experienced dramatic growth rates in freight over the past few decades as Pacific Rim markets have matured. However, since mid 1990’s NAFTA has fostered increased emphasis on north – south traffic as well. The widening of the Panama Canal in the next couple of years will further expose the Gulf of Mexico Ports to more, larger ocean vessels which no longer will have to experience long delays to berth at West Coast Ports. Simply stated, our surface transportation network has not increased at a rate commensurate with growth in freight and passenger traffic. This is true at our local level also.
The fact that the growth rate in freight transportation traffic is generally greater than passenger traffic is especially true in the Mobile MPO area. Part of that is due to Mobile’s economic climate. In August, 2013 the City of Mobile was ranked no. 2 in US metro cities with the highest economic growth potential by Business Facilities magazine. This not only shows Mobile’s potential for future economic development, but it also is evidence of a growing economy. The article cited Airbus and Safran – two companies that will grow our city’s economy by creating high paying jobs and lead to more opportunities. Increased industry is directly correlated to the increased movement and generation of freight. While new industries like the Airbus assembly plant, Thyssen Krupp, Berg Steel, and the Choctaw Point Container Facility, most growth in Mobile’s freight still will come from industries and companies already in and expanding in our area. Ship building and the oil & gas associated industries’ continued growth remain as drivers of our economy as well.
Coupled with the fact that traditional Travel Demand Forecasting uses only estimates for freight, our overall transportation infrastructure planning and tools must keep pace with our new realities. Freight planning historically, at least for medium sized MPO’s like Mobile, has used data analysis including employment numbers and trend forecasting that assumes trends from the past will continue in the future. Recognizing that the efficient movement of freight is vital to the growth of Mobile’s economy and further recognizing that our area must provide for superior freight distribution and not become a freight chokepoint, the Transportation Department of the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission (SARPC) is developing bold, new planning tools to better recognize, understand, track, and predict freight movement in Mobile.
Several years ago, in partnership with the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH), SARPC layered freight into our existing Long Range Plan. The original intent was to create a single, comprehensive, multi-dimensional, multi-modal, and predictive tool for transportation infrastructure planning. The project hit some pitfalls including data availability. The trip generation and projection methodology for freight was very robust and required a lot of data. The Industry Cluster Analysis, although seemed to be a perfect match for the SARPC freight model, did not produce results that met the validation expectations of SARPC.
Today, with the availability of the much improved Freight Analysis Framework (FAF3), the percent trucks are derived from FAF3 data. ALDOT has conducted vehicle classification counts for SARPC at over 40 stations within our study area. The FAF3 base year data is more in line with the vehicle classification counts data provided by ALDOT. Although the FAF3 data does provide a year 2040 truck count, it is based on a percentage of the total overall volume for year 2040 projected for each facility. These projections derived by the FAF3 are grossly overestimated and are unusable; the SARPC freight component to the model only uses the TADT (a percentage of trucks) derived from the FAF3 data.
A portion of the trip generation component to the industry cluster analysis of the model that was to be produced by the UAH study, was freight surveys conducted by SARPC. These freight surveys began in 2008 and continue today. Staff maintains and updates a database of these surveys that not only try to develop a local sense of where freight is coming from and going to locally, how much freight is generated locally, but it gives the MPO a sense of infrastructure needs in terms of our freight providers (turning radius, capacity issues, etc.).