Photo by Zetong Li on Unsplash.

A study of ag transportation released in December by the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed that 80% of United States ag freight moves on only 17 transportation corridors that make up 17% of the U.S. highway network. The study, titled “Importance of Highways to U.S. Agriculture,” was undertaken because “the needs of ag users are not always accounted for in highway planning decisions,” according to Adam Sparger, director, Transportation Services Division, USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, and a co-author of the report.

Sparger was one of three panelists who discussed the report during two presentations at FreightWeekSTL 2021, an event presented in conjunction with the Inland Marine Expo in St. Louis, Missouri, which was presented by The Waterways Journal. A panel discussion was hosted by Mary Lamie, executive vice president of Multi Modal Enterprises and head of the St. Louis Regional Freightway. Besides Sparger, the panelists included Ken Eriksen, senior vice President, head of client advisory and development, energy and transportation, and Policy, IHS Markit, and Tom Blair, St. Louis District Engineer with the Missouri Department of Transportation. Sparger and Blair gave their presentations virtually.

Agriculture is the largest user of the freight transportation system in the nation, representing 27% of all freight ton-miles with an annual value of $3.1 trillion. In addition, agricultural freight is expected to increase 23% over the next 20 years, with the majority currently moving on just 17% of highway mileage, including one corridor that spans the entire state of Missouri.

“We wanted to demonstrate how maintaining the performance of the highway system is essential to keeping freight costs low and supporting the continued economic competitiveness of U.S. agriculture,” said Sparger.

The study further focused in on 17 different regional highway corridors within this “High-Volume Domestic Agriculture Highways” network and used some novel analysis techniques to illuminate how the condition and performance of these corridors—such as pavement, bridge conditions, congestion, reliability and safety—affect the efficient movement of agriculture products.

Among the 17 HDAH corridors analyzed in the report is Corridor #16 from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to St. Louis, Missouri. This corridor includes Interstate 70 connecting Kansas City to St. Louis, a portion of the seventh largest state-owned transportation system overseen by the Missouri Department of Transportation.

“This 600 miles from Sioux City, South Dakota, to St. Louis carries more than 5 billion ton-miles of agricultural goods each year. They largely consist of corn, soybeans, meat and different livestock, specifically between St. Louis and Kansas City,” said Blair, who leads a team responsible for about 6,000 miles of state-owned roads and about 10% of Missouri's bridges.

“These highways are essential to U.S. farmers, the agricultural industry and downstream producers.” For DOT leaders like himself, Blair said reports with this type of data are valuable, helping to make sure they pay attention to that agricultural movement and not just to the average motorist.

“When I look at that corridor, it highlights that Missouri is an ag state. We are in the middle of the country. And as we talk about often, St. Louis is the third largest rail hub in the United States. The St. Louis Metro area ranks as the third largest inland port. And as Mary [Lamie] often likes to talk about, St. Louis is the ag coast of America. I-70 is one of the key highway corridors feeding into all three of those things,” Blair said.

He said the report shows that, throughout Missouri, I-70 has largely free-flowing traffic. To help ensure the continued smooth flow of freight throughout the bi-state St. Louis region, the St. Louis Regional Freightway annually creates a priority projects list that identifies key infrastructure projects and advocates for funding for them. This effort was one of just six case studies included in the comprehensive report featuring notable practices in freight planning and analysis.

“The St. Louis Regional Freightway case study shows the importance of engaging stakeholders and building consensus in a process of selecting, prioritizing and implementing infrastructure investment,” Sparger said. “The St. Louis Regional Freightway serves as a great example of how increasing cooperation in freight planning and project development along the entire length of a commodity corridor within a region can help to improve performance for commodities that travel through multiple jurisdictions.”

Several improvement projects on I-70, from Wentzville to Stan Musial Veteran’s Memorial Bridge over the Mississippi River, are among those included on the 2021 Priority Projects List. These I-70 projects are now among the five-year program of projects recently made public by the Missouri Highway Commission.

MoDOT’s cross agency collaboration with the Missouri Department of Agriculture was the focus of another of the case studies highlighted in the report. “We worked with the Missouri Department of Agriculture to prioritize $450 million dollars in investment on 250 bridges that not only were moving passenger traffic, but we were really focused on which of these bridges can be most critical to the food supply chain and Missouri's economy,” Blair said. “That was really good cross collaboration between our agencies that was highlighted in the report.”

The panelists also recognized the importance of collaboration as a driver of competitiveness. “The international competitiveness of our agricultural exports relies on the efficient operation of our entire supply chain, not just at our ports or railways, but rural county roads and bridges, too, as well as the national highway network,” said Sparger. “So, our global competitiveness begins at home with the decisions we make about investments in transportation infrastructure.”

Eriksen agreed. “Grain flows like water. It is going to follow that path of least resistance. And that's very important as we think about those impediments. But we also think about the competitors that are out there making significant investments,” he said. While the U.S. maintains a competitive edge, Sparger and Eriksen cautioned that America’s competitors also know the benefits of infrastructure investment. As examples, they cited Chinese investment in Brazil, Brazil's own investments in modernizing its roadways and ports, and the Ukraine's efforts to upgrade its infrastructure. Many of these competitors already have the advantage of being able to produce commodities more cheaply than the U.S.; being able to move them relatively more cheaply as well has narrowed the gap between their competitive ag position and that of the U.S.

Eriksen acknowledged there are challenges ahead but sounded an optimistic note for the St. Louis region. “There are no [river] locks between St. Louis and Asia, and only one set of locks for vessels that transit the Panama Canal. You’ve got unit-train-sized loads of grain coming into St. Louis from both sides of the river.”

Sparger cautioned that international transportation competitiveness doesn’t depend only on the large corridors. “It depends on the entire supply chain—including rural roads and bridges.” Blair said MoDOT recently applied for federal funds to address rural bridges after analysis showed that 31 of Missouri’s 2,000 bridges carried most of the ag traffic and needed the most work.

Sparger said the report used a “cookbook approach” that could be used by other states to perform ag corridor analyses.

David Murray can be reached at journal@hpj.com.

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