At seemingly every turn in the supply chain, agribusiness shippers say they are feeling the hurt caused by rail and truck equipment shortages, burdensome ocean carrier fees, and overall freight congestion that they claim a strong federal freight funding package will help alleviate.
“Our entire international and domestic transportation supply chains have failed,” testified Donna Lemm, representing the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, at a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing on February 26. “Our producers have to store or even destroy their production, obviously losing the sales they’re so dependent on.”
Lemm told members of the committee’s Transportation and Safety subcommittee that her members have been suffering from a host of recent controversial transportation policies, including accessorial and demurrage fees charged by the railroads as they install their own versions of precision scheduled railroading, as well as new charges imposed by containership carriers on trucks that “street turn” containers in the port areas.
Lemm also complained of a drayage truck chassis shortage and shortages of empty intermodal containers in Chicago, Dallas and Memphis causing havoc for shippers at the height of the cotton export season.
In addition, “export shipments entering rail terminals are being rejected because of the congestion, so we’re being turned around,” she said. “Often there aren’t enough appointments to meet the surges of exports that we have, and we’re not meeting our vessel cut-offs. The net effect is exporters and the truckers they are working with are getting less loads per driver per day – reducing supply chain velocity and U.S. surety to meet export customer commitments.”
Lemm, along with panel members representing the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA), and the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors (CAGTC), pleaded the case that freight receives priority in an infrastructure or transportation reauthorization package.
“A major aspect should include removal of the $500 million cap on intermodal freight funding in the next federal transportation reauthorization legislation,” said Noel Hacegaba, Deputy Executive Director at the Port of Long Beach, who was there representing IANA.
“Such a cap limits the ability to fund significant intermodal projects at the levels that are needed. In addition, we support fully funding freight provisions and opportunities for U.S. seaports to apply for formula and competitive multimodal freight grants.”
CAGTC representative Joseph Szabo, who is also executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, testified that to increase flexibility provided to state departments of transportation, “we encourage Congress to eliminate the cap on non-highway projects, currently set at 10 percent of total funds, so each state can invest in its most pressing supply chain needs, regardless of mode.”
It was a positive sign for transport interests that the subcommittee’s chair, Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska), backed freight-specific funding as the lawmakers work toward passing an infrastructure bill. “We’ve seen the FAST Act recognize the importance of freight by including the formula funding program, and the discretionary grant program, known as INFRA [Infrastructure for Rebuilding America], specifically for freight, each of which are authorized at $1 billion to $1.5 billion annually,” Fischer said.
Fischer noted during the hearing that she was glad to see that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) had been providing hours of service (HOS) relief for ag haulers in the form of exemptions to the electronic logging device mandate. “I plan to continue to work with the FMCSA administrator on HOS flexibility for ag haulers and the trucking industry more broadly.”
Fischer also said she will be reintroducing the “Build USA Infrastructure Act”, a bill she introduced two years ago but did not gain traction. The bill adds $21.4 billion to the Highway Trust Fund each year for the next five years following the expiration of the FAST ACT. It provides more flexibility in the design, construction and permitting of infrastructure projects through voluntarily agreements with the Federal Highway Administration, she said.