Why Compare Freight Transportation Costs by Mode?

The three primary ingredients that go into transportation investment are all in much shorter supply; money, land, and a clean environment. We need to optimize the use of these scarce resources, for both the short- and long-term. To make smart investments, we need to compare the costs and impacts of each land freight mode. It is important that we apply a full set of lifecycle costs and impacts that not only include initial infrastructure costs, but also the environmental, land use, and quality of life impacts, as well as operating, maintenance, and replacement costs.

20 Lifecycle Cost Metrics for Land Freight Transportation

Cost of Infrastructure Construction

Construction metrics cover all the initial construction costs of building a road or a rail line.

1. Labor. Paying for the labor involved in constructing road or rail.

2. Materials. Initial construction costs of roads and railways, not including land acquisition.

3. Existing right-of-way. The availability of existing or legacy rights of way for building new roads or rail lines.

4. Right-of-way. The costs of both land and right-of-way needed for a project.

Cost of Operations

Operations metrics relate to the use of and maintenance of roads and rail.

5. Energy. Cost of fuel or energy used to transport goods via rail or road (diesel, gasoline, electricity, natural gas, etc).

6. Maintenance. Cost of maintenance required to keep freight transportation in working condition.

7. Rolling Stock. The cost of acquisition of trucks, locomotives, containers, rail cars, etc.

8. Useful life of rolling stock. Estimated life of rolling stock.

Cost of Impact on Environment

Environmental metrics include air, water, noise, and light pollution.

9. Criteria Pollutants.  A set of air pollutants that cause smog, acid rain, and other health hazards.

10. Greenhouse Gases. Emissions from the operation and maintenance of road and rail transport that contribute to global warming.

11. Noise. The impact of noise on quality of life for areas abutting roads and rails including engine, rolling stock, aerodynamics, etc.

12. Land Used for Transport. Track or lane-miles required to move a given tonnage. This is land devoted to track or pavement, not the entire amount of land needed for right-of-way.

13. Water Quality. Impact of vehicle and fuel contamination on adjacent wildlife and natural environment.

14. Light Pollution. Impact of light for freight transport on a community or on wildlife and the natural environment.

Cost of Impact on Community

Community metrics affect people’s quality of life and economic well-being.

15. Property Tax Change. Added or lost property tax due to road or rail construction.

16. Environmental Justice. Difference in impact of road and rail on communities when sorted by economic status.

17. Local and Regional Development. Multiplier effect of road or rail construction on area economic development.

18. Safety. Losses, injuries, and fatalities due to accidents.

19. Short-Term Economic Impact. Local economic impact from job creation and other benefits due to construction of road or rail infrastructure.

20. Travel Congestion. Both non-recurring (the cost of delays caused by accidents) and recurring travel congestion (the effect of lost time due to congestion or capacity limits as well as the impact of additional truck or rail traffic in terms of creating more congestion on roads or rails).

Additional Information

Future Directions

Once the data has been assembled, we will build the tools that can be used for applying the data toward wise transportation decisions and investments.



We are currently seeking funding from the Ford Foundation to advance this project. Let us know If this is a project you would like to support.


Data Gathering

OTNA partners with academic research institutions in building this dataset and tools. Let us know if you would like to add your own insights or knowledge of existing research that would further inform this project.


Data Dissemination

Once the data and tools are established, we will make them publicly available through our website.

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