Dynamic and innovative industry clusters are critical for the success of a regional economy. As a critical mass, industry clusters promote efficiencies that individual businesses or industries cannot. But questions remain: Which industries are growing? Does Minnesota’s freight infrastructure meet industry needs? How do clusters affect transportation systems and local communities?

To fill this information need, TPEC researchers create new analysis tools, study Minnesota’s industry clusters, and engage regional business and policy leaders. The result is a valuable knowledge base to inform freight infrastructure planning and investment decisions.

National Freight Economy Atlas

To better understand freight flows and foster the growth of freight infrastructure, TPEC researchers created a new online platform—the National Freight Economy Atlas. The atlas allows users to analyze the freight infrastructure at the national, regional, state, and metropolitan/combined statistical areas.

The atlas displays information in a series of interactive maps. National and regional maps provide detailed analysis of freight and economic clusters. Industry cluster maps provide freight economy information geared to specific characteristics of industry clusters, such as cereal grains.

A featured story map is Amber Roads of Grain. This analysis unveils how technological, political, and market shifts in the grain supply chain impact the way local producers and wholesalers navigate their local freight networks—a network that spans road, rail, and barge infrastructure.

Link to the National Freight Economy Atlas

Analyses of industry clusters in Minnesota regions


Minnesota has a diverse and changing set of industry clusters. Photo: Shutterstock

TPEC worked with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), Minnesota Department of Administration, and University of Minnesota Extension to develop and implement a unique approach linking economic development and transportation planning. Their work has focused on getting manufacturers’ perspectives on transportation issues as part of regional transportation decision making.

Using the Economic Development Administration’s US Cluster Mapping tool, the team identified competitive traded industry clusters in MnDOT operations districts. U of M, MnDOT, and local economic development staff interviewed manufacturers and their carriers within these clusters to better understand the transportation and logistics issues these companies face. The team also wanted to learn how MnDOT could make improvements to its operations and systems to help alleviate or minimize these issues.

A pilot study in MnDOT District 8 was completed in 2014. Since then, projects have been conducted in Districts 4, 2,1, 6, and 7, and one is currently under way in District 3. A similar study was conducted on a more limited basis in the Metro area. MnDOT has incorporated results of the studies into its statewide freight planning.

Public engagement: Conference, forum

Under the TPEC umbrella, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs cosponsored a two-day forum: Mapping the Midwest’s Future—Regional Innovation Clusters and Competitiveness. Conference attendees included more than 180 business leaders, policymakers, economic development officials, and academics from 12 Midwest states and 4 Canadian provinces.

Current research

A current project is analyzing Minnesota’s medical supply chain. While cereal grain is Minnesota’s most prominent commodity in terms of volume, medical devices are among the highest in value. By learning from past efforts on mapping the grain supply chain, TPEC researchers plan to bring a unique, spatial perspective to transportation planners and policymakers for this key cluster. Read a blog post about the grain and medical industry studies.

Completed research

Related resources from TPEC researchers

  • A website—freighteconomy.org—with findings, video, and other resources from the Freight Economy Project, sponsored by BNSF Railway and other partners.
  • A cluster tool—www.clustermapping.us—that plots data about types of industries on a map. The tool was developed with U.S. Economic Development Administration funding, by the Harvard Business School's Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, in partnership with the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School and others.