Agriculture in the United States has long benefitted from having the best transportation infrastructure in the world.
There are a number of key transportation projects going on right now that can help build upon and secure this advantage in the future. One important current transportation infrastructure measure is the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015 that would extend federal highway funding for the next six years.
The House and Senate are working to send the bill to the White House for a signature before federal transportation funding expires on Nov. 20.
“Eighty percent of America’s corn crop is trucked to market, so this issue affects all of us,” said Chip Bowling, National Corn Growers Association president. “Safe roads and bridges allow us to get our products to market quickly, safely, and efficiently. When roads and bridges aren’t properly maintained, it’s not just a nuisance — it puts our safety at risk and hurts our bottom lines.”
The longer-term nature of the bill is very important for projects at the state level around the country, according to Mike Steenhoek, of the Soy Transportation Coalition.
“It is very important for Congress to provide some kind of predictability of what their intentions and strategies will be for improving our nation’s surface transportation system. Building bridges and roads and maintaining them is very capital intensive and requires years of planning, but unfortunately Congress has responded to that need with unpredictable short-term legislative actions. What the states are requiring is a federal partner that is predictable. I would rather have the federal government be predictably good than sporadically great,” Steenhoek said. “It is important for them to come along side the states in order to preserve, maintain and improve the surface transportation system. The fact that Congress is actually getting close to a multi-year bill is a step in the right direction.”
There was an effort to get the bipartisan Safe, Flexible and Efficient (SAFE) Trucking Act included in the bill that had broad support from agricultural organizations.
“Unfortunately there were some missed opportunities. This SAFE amendment would have offered some enhancement and benefits for agriculture but Congress failed to embrace that opportunity,” Steenhoek said. “The legislation would have allowed states to permit six-axle, 91,000-pound semis on their interstate system. On our side we had facts and data. The other side had the opportunity to confuse, marginalize and frighten — and they used that very effectively. They simply made the statement that increased weight limits equal a more dangerous system. Unfortunately for many members of Congress that is all they needed in order to vote against that amendment.
“The facts are that if you increase the weights with that extra axle, the stopping distances are actually less. You also have a given amount of freight transported by fewer trucks and less congestion and less probability of accidents. Unfortunately this requires more explanation and conversation with members of Congress who are really not open to it. The amendment was defeated. This issue is not going away, though. The U.S. economy continues to demand more trucking — about a 50% increase between now and 2040 — and Congress needs to address how we are going to adjust to this increased demand and congestion in a safe responsible way. This amendment was a missed opportunity for agriculture and many other industries, but overall it is good to have a bill moving along.”
At the same time transportation is being discussed in Congress, the world is watching as the massive expansion of the Panama Canal is being completed.
“The Panama Canal expansion will be completed by the end of this calendar year and will open for business in April of 2016. This is one of the links in our logistics chain and as it gets stronger and more robust, it will provide opportunities to U.S. agriculture. With the expansion in the Panama Canal, we will be able to load ocean vessels that hold easily 500,000 more bushels of soybean per vessel. A typical ocean vessel today is loaded with 2.1 or 2.2 million bushels, so adding 500,000 bushels is substantial. This is just shaving cents off the eventual delivered price at a time when agriculture is facing some headwinds from a strengthening U.S. dollar, a devaluation of the Brazilian Real, and a softening economy in China. This is a wonderful opportunity to provide benefits to U.S. agriculture by making our transportation system more efficient and making ourselves more competitive in the international marketplace.”