Failing US transport infrastructure hindering food shipments

AMERICA'S agricultural sector continues to set the pace for much of the rest of the world. Even during times of severe drought and other weather extremes, US farmers find ways to produce an incredible bounty.

Foods shipped in liquid bulk during 2011 included 196.2 million pounds of milk, 1.5 billion pounds of orange juice, and at least 26.9 billion pounds of sweeteners, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Soybeans account for a big part of the oilseed output, and US farmers grow approximately 3.3 billion bushels of soybeans annually.

It's one thing to produce bulk food products in such quantities. Getting those products to US consumers — not to mention those overseas — in a timely manner is becoming increasingly challenging. The aging US transportation system already costs the overall US economy $129 billion annually.

A recent report by the United Soybean Board (USB) highlighted the agricultural sector's concerns about the deteriorating US transportation infrastructure and pointed out that most of the attention to date had been focused on the impact to the broader US economy. Relatively little attention has been paid to the infrastructure's impact on agriculture.

The interstate highway system is more than half a century old; the lock-and-dam system used for inland barge movements of agricultural commodities is more than seven decades old; the railroad network dates back to the late 1800s, and railroad operators continue to pull up track and reduce capacity.

While some transport modes account for a larger percentage of one food commodity or another, no single mode can handle all of the food shipments across the United States. This is a large country with a dispersed population. We need a balanced transportation system.

Federal highways are getting more attention due to the two year funding bill passed by Congress in July, ending a three-year fight with the Obama Administration over road and transit spending. The legislation provides $105 billion for road and bridge construction and repair over the next two years. It's hard to say how much, if any, of that will be allocated to rural highways.

More than funding was contained in the highway bill, though. Other factors that will impact carriers hauling agricultural and food products include establishment of a drug and alcohol clearinghouse, employer notification systems, and new entrant testing and audits.

The Department of Transportation must establish, within two years, a clearinghouse to capture truck drivers' positive drug/alcohol test results and records of refusals to test. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration must establish standards for state systems that automatically notify motor carriers of drivers' moving violations and other driver record changes, such as suspensions. DOT must require new truck fleet startups to complete a proficiency test on safety regulations and complete a DOT safety review within 12 months.

The truck broker bond was increased to $75,000 and now applies to freight forwarders. Carriers are now authorized to subhaul during the busiest times of the year.

The legislation clarified movement of farm supplies, under the agricultural exemption to the hours-of-service rules, from a terminal or distribution point to a retail site or farm. Unfortunately, the legislation did not raise truck sizes and weights, as with hoped, with the exception of an increase in allowable weight for idling reduction devices from 400 pounds to 550 pounds.

DOT was charged with conducting a comprehensive size and weight study within the next two years, but Washington skeptics suggest the department is unlikely to meet that deadline. Bigger equipment certainly would be beneficial to liquid and dry bulk food haulers, because it could improve operating efficiencies and boost productivity.

Still the highway bill should address some of the infrastructure concerns of agricultural and food haulers, but it is just a start. Other transport modes (specifically rail and barge) also must be addressed. More capacity and transload capabilities will be required in all of these modes to keep the liquid and dry bulk food shipments flowing to consumers across the United States in coming decades.

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