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Freight Facts & Figures 2017 - Chapter 2: Freight Moved in Domestic and International Trade

The American economy stretches across a continent with links to the world, drawing on natural resources and manufactured products from many locations to serve markets at home and abroad. More freight is moving greater distances as part of far-flung supply chains among distant trading partners. In 2015 the U.S. transportation system moved a daily average of about 49.3 million tons of freight valued at more than $52.5 billion. The Freight Analysis Framework estimates show that the tonnage of goods moved in 2015 fully rebounded from the declines experienced during the December 2007–June 2009 economic recession. Tonnage is projected to increase at about 1.4 percent per year between 2015 and 2045.

Table 2-1

The value of freight moved is forecasted to increase faster than the weight, rising from $1,044 per ton in 2012 to $1,461 per ton in 2045, when controlling for inflation. This increase is due to highvalue, low-weight commodities growing at a faster rate than low-value, high-weight commodities. Exports at $1,772 per ton and imports at $1,941 per ton were higher than domestic shipments of $934 per ton in 2012. Exports and imports accounted for 11.8 percent of the tons and 21.1 percent of the value in 2012 and are projected to make up an even greater share of freight moving throughout the United States, reaching 17.5 percent of the tonnage and 39.3 percent of the value by 2045. 

Table 2-2

In general, the largest percentage of goods move relatively short distances. Approximately 50 percent of the weight and 37 percent of the value of goods were moved less than 100 miles between origin and destination in 2015. About 7 percent of the weight and 17 percent of the value of goods were moved more than 1,000 miles. Distance, as used in this publication, refers to the Great Circle Distance, which is commonly called “as-the-crow-flies.”

Table 2-3

The top 10 commodities by weight are comprised entirely of bulk products and accounted for 67.3 percent of total tonnage but only 26.8 percent of the value of goods moved in 2015. The top 10 commodities by value accounted for 57.3 percent of total value and 35.9 percent of all tons. The leading commodities by weight are bulk goods, including natural gas, coke, and asphalt; gravel; gasoline; cereal grains; and non-metallic mineral products. The leading commodities by value are high value-per-ton goods frequently requiring rapid delivery, including electronics, motorized vehicles, and machinery. Most goods are moved relatively short distances (less than 250 miles), accounting for 50.3 percent of the value, and 66.6 percent of the weight for all shipments within the United States in 2015. Shipments transported more than 250 miles represented 33.4 percent of the tonnage but the vast majority (84.5 percent) of the ton-miles. Modal shares of freight vary by distance. Trucks carry the largest shares by value, tons, and tonmiles for shipments moving 750 or fewer miles, while rail is the dominant mode by tons and tonmiles for shipments moved 750 to 2,000 miles. Air, multiple modes and mail, and other/unknown modes accounted for 54.2 percent of the value of shipments moved more than 2,000 miles.

Table 2-4

A handful of states are responsible for more than 70 percent of domestic oil production. Texas is the largest oil producing state at 1,176 million barrels in 2016, accounting for 44.3 percent of total U.S. oil production, while North Dakota was a distant second at 378 million barrels (14.3%), followed by California’s 188 million barrels (7.1%) and Alaska’s 179 million barrels (6.8%). 

Figure 2-2

Expanded U.S. oil production and changes in where oil is produced have increased the use of rail and barges to move oil from the wellhead to refineries and terminals for distribution to the final consumer. Although pipelines continue to be the predominant mode for moving oil, rail shipments have increased substantially in recent years. Regional (PADD to PADD) oil shipments by rail increased, on average, from less than 1 percent in 2010 to 14.2 percent in 2016, after peaking at 26.7 percent for 2014. Oil production in the Bakken formation located in North Dakota has accounted for the majority of new rail shipments, while tankers and barges continued to move crude oil on U.S. inland waterways from port to port along the coast or on the Great Lakes. The use of tankers and barges for oil transport has decreased slightly, from an average of 2.6 percent in 2010 to 2.3 percent in 2016. 

Figure 2-3

Establishment of PADD

  • During World War II, the United States was divided into five districts to organize the rationing of gasoline and other petroleum products. Today those same regions are called Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts (PADDSs). PADDS are used to analyze patterns of crude oil and petroleum product movements throughout the Nation.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ Commodity Flow Survey indicates that trucks moved 59.4 percent of the tonnage and 62.8 percent of the value of all hazardous materials shipped from within the United States. However, truck ton-miles of hazardous materials shipments accounted for a much smaller share, about one-third of all ton-miles, because such shipments travel relatively short distances. Specifically, hazardous materials shipments by trucks traveled the shortest distance, an average of 56 miles per shipment, compared to all other modes. By contrast, rail accounted for only 4.3 percent of hazardous materials shipments by weight but 27.6 percent of ton-miles. 

Table 2-5

Flammable liquids, especially gasoline, are the predominant hazardous materials transported in the United States, accounting for 86.4 percent by value, 85.4 percent by weight, and 66.5 percent in term of ton-miles. Explosives, on average, traveled the longest distance, while radioactive materials moved the shortest.

Table 2-6

An average of 47.1 percent of shipments by value traveled only within state in 2015. States with the highest shares tended to be either very large or geographically isolated relative to other states. Hawaii had the highest share of intrastate shipments by value (90.0 percent), followed by Texas (67.4 percent) and Florida (62.8 percent). Trucks accounted for 81.0 percent of intrastate shipments. The only two states that shipped less than half their total intrastate value by truck were Alaska (46.7 percent) and Louisiana (48.4 percent) because a significant amount of petroleum products are moved by pipeline within both states. Overall, 7 states shipped most of their goods (by value) within their own borders, and another 16 states shipped between 40 and 50 percent, within state borders. 

Figure 2-4

An interconnected freight transportation network contributes to state economic growth by supporting resource development and expanding interstate commerce. A ratio of outbound to inbound shipments that is greater than 1.0 indicates that a state ships more goods to markets in other states than it receives from other states, whereas a ratio less than 1.0 indicates that a state imports more goods from other states than it exports. Alaska and North Dakota have the highest ratios of about 2.0, indicating their exports of goods are about two times more than their imports of goods. Both states have relatively small populations and are major oil producers. According to the Freight Analysis Framework, nearly all of the crude petroleum moving out of Alaska was transported by water, while pipeline and rail were the primary modes for moving oil out of North Dakota. Other major states that export more than they import were California, Connecticut, and Illinois. Electronics was the top outbound domestic shipment category from California, while mixed shipments, such as groceries and convenience store goods, food for restaurants, office supplies, and hardware and plumbing items, were the top export from Connecticut. Coal was the top outbound shipment from Illinois. Hawaii had the lowest ratio of interstate outbound-to inbound shipments by value at 0.09 because of its distant location from the mainland and resource dependency. Other states with low outbound-to-inbound ratios include Florida and Nevada, partly due to demographics. 

Figure 2-5

All of the top five net exporters by weight are producers of energy commodities: Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia. Net domestic exporters are states that ship more freight to other states than to markets within their borders. According to the Energy Information Administration, Wyoming is the largest U.S. coal producer, followed by West Virginia, while Montana is the sixth largest coal producer. For domestic markets, rail and barge are used to transport coal over long distances, primarily to power plants.

Figure 2-6


Transportation facilities that move international trade into and out of the United States demonstrate the importance of all modes and intermodal combinations to global connectivity. The top 25 foreign-trade gateways measured by value of shipments in 2015 consist of 10 water ports, 6 land-border crossings, and 9 air gateways. Port of New York, $202.6 billion, was the highest international trade freight gateway (water). The top 25 gateways accounted for 61.5 percent of total U.S.-international trades.

Figure 2-7

Foreign trade has had a major impact on all U.S. borders and coasts. For example, an increase in trade with China has resulted in a large share of trade moving through Pacific coast ports. The newly expanded Panama Canal allows larger vessels to transit between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Since 1990 the value of merchandise trade has increased by 153 percent in inflation adjusted terms. Ports and airports on the Atlantic coast continued to account for the largest share in terms of trade value. In 2016 they accounted for 29 percent of the total $3.3 trillion in trade. 

Figure 2-8

Water is the major mode for U.S. foreign trade. Approximately 69 percent, 1.4 billion freight tons valued at 1.5 trillion dollars, of U.S. foreign trade moved by water in 2016. Air freight, although at only 0.4 percent of total trade by weight, was the second largest mode for value of goods moved internationally at slightly over one trillion dollars. By value, the water share was 40 percent, with air and truck accounting for 28 and 19 percent respectively. Together, rail and pipeline accounted for about 6 percent of the total.

Figure 2-9

International trade has grown considerably, and the movement of these goods within the United States is placing pressure on the domestic transportation network and on all modes. Trucks are the most common mode used to move imports and exports between international gateways and inland locations. This trend is expected to continue with tonnage of international trade forecast to grow at a rate of 4.0 percent per year between 2015 and 2045. 

Table 2-7

China moved from fourth place in 2000 to become this country’s top trading partner by value in 2015 and 2016, followed closely by Canada and then Mexico. China’s share of trade with the United States nearly tripled from 5.9 to 15.9 percent and value more than quadrupled from 135 to 575 billion dollars in the same time span. A drop in crude oil prices, rather than volume, has negatively affected the total value of U.S.-Canada trade in recent years. 

Table 2-8

Trade with our North America Free Trade Agreement partners, Canada and Mexico, has grown since 2000. By value, trucks were the most heavily utilized mode, carrying 65.5 percent of the goods traded with these countries in 2016. Value decreased 3.4 percent from 2015 to 2016, due in part to lower crude oil prices. 

Table 2-9

Truck and rail transport most U.S. bidirectional freight trade with Canada and Mexico. Trade carried by truck was largely responsible for the 85.3 percent increase in the value of imports from Mexico between 2000 and 2016. Although trade via pipeline with these two countries increased markedly, pipeline comprises a relatively small share of total trade value.

Table 2-10

A large number of trucks and trains carry goods into and out of the United States from Mexico and Canada. In 2016 more than 5.8 million trucks hauled 4.1 million loaded containers into the United States from Mexico, an increase of 28.2 and 73.0 percent, respectively, over 2000 levels. This traffic reflects an increase of 85.3 percent imports in trade values (table 2-10). In contrast, the number of incoming trucks and loaded containers from Canada declined by 16.6 and 9.9 percent, respectively, while incoming loaded rail containers increased by 28.8 percent between 2000 and 2016.

Table 2-11

Updated: Wednesday, November 15, 2017