Ag stakeholders, lawmakers eye transportation problems

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 7, 2014 - Several agriculture-related stakeholders and lawmakers have been expressing concerns about an unreliable and slow transportation infrastructure system involving trucks and rail.

The longstanding issue came up in at least two recent congressional hearings, and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., released a study Friday that asserted North Dakota farmers have lost $66 million over the past four months due to delays in agriculture shipments.

The study, conducted by North Dakota State University, found that a high demand for grain shipments, an extremely cold winter slowing train speeds, and increasing needs of the energy sector resulted in delayed grain deliveries and increased costs for rail transportation.

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“This report confirms what I have been stressing to government regulators and the railroad industry: The problems with ag shipments are threatening the livelihood of the thousands of North Dakotans who are involved in agriculture,” Heitkamp said. The senator said she will push federal regulators to help get farmers their supplies and move their crops to market faster.

At a recent hearing of the House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Livestock, Rural Development and Credit, lawmakers heard from several livestock producers about their transportation concerns.

Michael Smith, speaking on behalf of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), said his industry could use “some relief from obsolete or ridiculous rules” such as the Transportation Department requiring a 30-minute rest during each eight-hour shift for truck drivers. Smith said stopping for fuel or meals does not satisfy the requirement.

“While we support rules to ensure that drivers operate in a safe manner, we must also look out for the welfare of our cattle,” Smith said. “Shipping cattle is a stressful time in their lives.”

Smith said a key way to keep animals comfortable in the truck, especially in the summer, is to keep air constantly moving through the trailer. Smith said lawmakers should press DOT to exempt livestock haulers from the rule. Further, he said more weight needs to be allowed on the trailers. Smith said with an additional axle, trailers can be loaded to more than 80,000 pounds and “have less wear and tear on roads and bridges than we do now with two axles.”

Howard Hill, president of the National Pork Producers Council, told lawmakers that the driver rule places the health and welfare of livestock at risk, particularly when it's hot, and provides no increased benefit to public safety.

Hill said the livestock industry already has programs - developed and offered under USDA oversight - that educate drivers on transportation safety and animal welfare. He said NPPC and other organizations are petitioning DOT for a 90-day waiver to the rule beginning June 1. Hill said that if DOT fails to eventually grant a waiver, NPPC intends to begin filing similar petitions every 90 days in order to protect animal welfare.

At a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the issue of slow or limited transportation came up during a discussion on this past winter's propane shortage that hit farmers in the Midwest and Northeast.

Gary France, chairman of the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA), said that while DOT granted some waivers from the hours-of-service rules, the overall implementation of the 2013 regulations has resulted in a reduction of propane delivery by up to 15 percent.

“NPGA believes that the 2013 change resulted in no additional increment of safety, but this winter it resulted in a detriment to propane consumers,” France said.

Also, France said some states granted exemptions from weight limits for trucks traveling over state roads. He said that while this does not allow drivers to carry overweight loads on interstate highways, it does help trucks carry additional fuel volumes up to the maximum amount of propane allowed by law.

Joe Cordill, owner of Cordill Butane Propane Service, said significant volumes of propane are shipped via rail, and the propane industry is increasingly reliant on this transportation mode.

“Competition from other substances for transportation is intense and growing,” Cordill said. “Many facilities producing natural gas liquids, crude oil, or any of a variety of other products have yet to have access to reliable pipeline service to take their products to market, so they rely on railroads.”

Cordill said many of those products rely on the same kind of rail cars as propane. “For those products that don't use the same kind of railcars, additional usage of the railroad infrastructure increases congestion, making service less reliable even when railroads desire to prioritize propane shipments.”

Further, Cardill said rail transport becomes more unreliable during cold weather when reliable propane delivery is needed the most.

These issues are likely to get a closer look from lawmakers as the debate in Congress begins over surface transportation program reauthorization.

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