Freight, Rail and Waterways
Freight and Commercial Vehicle Operations
MnDOT’s Office of Freight and Commercial Vehicle Operations helps to improve the performance of the multimodal freight transportation system serving Minnesota by planning and delivering freight infrastructure projects, and by ensuring compliance with state and federal regulations.
Multimodal Freight Planning
Unique regional freight issues in District 4 include access to intermodal ports and infrastructure, cross-border uniformity, and crude by rail. Major commodities include farm products, non-metallic minerals, and transportation equipment.
The 2015 Statewide Freight System Plan provides a policy framework and strategies for MnDOT and other freight stakeholders to guide planning and investment in various transportation modes. Developed cooperatively with private and other public entities, the comprehensive plan also provides guidelines in project development and operational decisions, in accordance with the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) and the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act.
In 2013, MnDOT initiated a pilot project in southwest and west central Minnesota in order to better understand freight customers’ transportation priorities and challenges, and to incorporate their input into MnDOT’s planning and project development. The Manufacturers’ Perspectives on Minnesota’s Transportation System: A Pilot Study in Southwest and West Central Minnesota was completed in February, 2014. This manufacturing marketing study is being expanded to other parts of Minnesota. Studies have been completed for District 2 (June 2016) and District 4 (May 2015).
The Western Minnesota Regional Freight Study (2009) focuses on the transportation of farm and forestry products, moving over-dimensional loads such as oil field and wind generation equipment, cross-border regulations, and intermodal transportation enhancements (including but not limited to rail container intermodal facilities and transshipment).
Trucks are an important mode for moving high-value, time-sensitive goods in Minnesota and to regional and distant markets. Trucks move approximately 63% of freight in Minnesota, more than any other mode. Trucks regularly provide the first-mile and last-mile connections to other modes of freight transportation, including rail, waterways, air cargo, and pipelines.
A study of oversize/overweight trucking routes, or OSOW Super Load Corridors, was completed to formally designate routes on the trunk highway system in Minnesota. The intent of Super Load Corridor designation is to preserve and enhance roadways for the movement of various over-size and/or over-weight permitted truck loads, such as wind turbine blades and tower sections throughout the state.
The Truck Parking Availability System Study developed and demonstrated an automated truck stop management system that can determine the number of occupied parking spaces at MnDOT safety rest areas. The system uses a network of cameras to monitor parking availability at truck stops, automatically identifying available spaces in real time. By providing information about the available number of parking spaces at each stop, this system can help drivers determine if it is safe to continue to the next rest area or if they should stop at their current location. The ability to determine when and where to stop within hours of service requirements helps drivers and carriers make better overall trip and operations decisions.
The Using Truck GPS Data for Freight Performance Analysis in the Twin Cities Metro Area study was completed in March of 2014. A GPS-based data analysis methodology is used to study the freight performance of heavy commercial trucks along 38 key freight corridors in the Twin Cities metropolitan area (TCMA). Several performance measures, including truck mobility, delay, and reliability were computed and analyzed by route, roadway segment, and time of day. These measures can be used to support the USDOT performance measure initiatives and to support regional surface freight planners in identifying freight bottlenecks, infrastructure improvement needs, and operational strategies to promote efficient freight movement.
The Commercial Vehicle Operations section within MnDOT implements and administers Minnesota laws and federal regulations governing the for-hire and private motor carrier industry in Minnesota. The office works with motor carriers and other commercial transportation providers to enhance the safety and security of their operations and to improve regulatory compliance. Activities include:
- Reviews of regulated commercial transportation providers and shippers to ensure compliance with safety and hazardous materials regulations;
- Evaluation of applications and issuance of credentials for interstate and intrastate motor carriers and shippers who meet the state’s safety and insurance requirements;
- Provision of technical assistance, educational outreach materials and training (to include online training) to commercial vehicle operators, shippers and others to improve transportation safety, efficiency and productivity; and,
- Evaluation of applications and issuance of single trip and annual permits authorizing movement of oversize and/or overweight loads on the trunk highway system within Minnesota.
Freight rail provides critical options to shippers in terms of market access, modal economics, and service. Minnesota has 4,444 route miles of railroads serviced by 20 railroad companies. The freight rail system is particularly critical in providing efficient connections to markets beyond state borders, throughout North America, and to the world through the seaports on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and the Great Lakes.
The Freight Rail Economic Development (FRED) Study (2013) assessed the economic impact of freight rail in Minnesota. The study recommends strategies for shippers, railroads, and economic development and transportation agencies to work together more effectively by supporting expanded local rail access, complimentary business development, and improved rail and intermodal service options.
The Minnesota State Rail Plan (2015 Final Draft) is MnDOT's modal plan for the state's freight and passenger rail system. The purpose of the plan is to guide the future of the rail system and rail services in the state. The plan sets forth unifying strategies for meeting the needs of both passenger and freight rail interests. The plan looks at the role of rail in transportation, Minnesota’s existing rail system, proposed freight and passenger rail improvements and investments, and coordination of services.
The MnDOT Railroad-Highway Grade Crossing Safety Improvement Program (ongoing since 1974) apportions federal funds to improve safety at railroad-highway grade crossings. Eligible projects include various types of signals and signal upgrades, crossing closures and consolidations, improving sight conditions and improving roadway geometrics and/or grades. Active warning devices have been installed at over 1,500 of the approximately 4,200 public railroad-highway grade crossings in Minnesota. Most of these projects have been constructed using federal funds with matching state, local or railroad funds. Sources of funding for this program are listed below.
In 2015, three grade crossing safety improvement projects are programmed in District 4, with a combined value of $709,565.
- Section 103 Grade Crossing Safety Program provides federal grants through the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) for the elimination of hazards at railway-highway crossings.
- The federal High Speed Rail Crossing Program provides federal funding (Federal Highway Administration and Federal Railroad Administration) for safety improvements at both public and private highway-rail grade crossings along federally designated high-speed rail corridors. The FRA has provided limited funding for highway-rail grade crossings in the designated high speed rail corridor from La Crosse, WI to Minneapolis along the Mississippi River.
- The state Antiquated Equipment Replacement Program provides state funding to replace obsolete warning and signal systems at selected grade crossings. Funding is provided from state general obligation bonds.
- The state Grade Crossing Safety Account Program provides state funding for smaller projects to enhance safety at highway-rail grade crossings. Projects include circuitry upgrades, minor roadway geometric changes, vegetation removal, and LED light replacement. Funding is provided from State Patrol fines.
The Minnesota Rail Service Improvement (MRSI) Program, established in 1976, is designed to rehabilitate deteriorating rail lines, improve rail-shipping opportunities, and preserve and maintain abandoned rail corridors for future transportation uses. The program provides loan funding to railroads and rail users to improve railroad shipper access in the state. Funding has been used for rehabilitation of deteriorating rail lines, extension of rail sidings, and construction of rail loading facilities (e.g., grain storage bins, fertilizer storage, and warehouses).
Additional state rail-related regulatory activities include the issuance of Commissioner’s Orders for the creation of new grade crossings, vacated grade crossings and stop/yield orders at grade crossings. MnDOT also administers a track inspection program in conjunction with the Federal Railroad Administration.
Ports and Waterways
Minnesota’s marine freight system — including river and lake ports, commercially navigable waterways and related infrastructure — plays a vital role in the state’s multimodal freight transportation system, and in the economic competitiveness of Minnesota's communities. The marine system connects Minnesota to distant markets, particularly for moving large or heavy, less expensive bulk freight.
The Mississippi River System provides direct access to river ports to the south and, via New Orleans, to the Gulf of Mexico. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway provides access to ports along the Great Lakes and, via the St. Lawrence River, to the Atlantic Ocean. In 2013, tonnage into and out of Minnesota’s ports on the Great Lakes system (Duluth-Superior, Two Harbors, Silver Bay, and Taconite Harbor) was 58.4 million tons. Tonnage into and out of Minnesota’s ports on the Mississippi River system (Minneapolis, St. Paul, Savage, Red Wing, Winona) was 9.2 million tons.
The Minnesota Statewide Ports and Waterways Plan (September 2014) is the first-ever plan for the ports and waterways system in Minnesota. The Statewide Ports and Waterways Plan promotes:
- Continued enhancement of the ports and waterways system’s role in providing the global, national, statewide, regional, and local transportation connections essential for Minnesotans’ prosperity and quality of life, and taking advantage of technological, logistical, and infrastructural advancements;
- Improved and maintained ports and waterway connections, in order to maximize return-on-investment for freight shipping, especially in an era of constrained resources;
- Better integrated planning within MnDOT and greater coordination with transportation partners.
The Port Development Assistance Program (PDAP) provides technical support, coordination with ports and the Army Corps of Engineers, and financial assistance for improving port access and facilities in the form of grants to public port authorities. Examples of projects include dock wall construction, building, rehabilitating or retrofitting new technologies for port structures and facilities, improving road and rail access to port areas and new or expansion of dredging to maximize ship draft at dock areas. PDAP has invested $25 million in infrastructure improvements for 34 projects at public ports on Lake Superior and the Mississippi River.
District 4 does not have direct access to a commercially-navigable waterway.