Lawmakers were urged to prioritize improvements to U.S. freight transportation in the next surface transportation bill that are environmentally responsible and enhance the economic health of U.S. agriculture.
In a March 17 letter to each member of Congress signed by dozens of agricultural producer, commodity, agribusiness, food manufacturer and food-related organizations, the groups noted that “Congress can achieve positive benefits for the environment while improving the economic competitiveness of the U.S. agricultural value chain.”
First, the letter asks legislators to ensure rural America is not left behind in any infrastructure package. “Adequate funding, availability of programs and ranking criteria should take into account the unique needs and challenges facing rural communities and our infrastructure,” the letter states, noting that farmers and ranchers can’t get their harvest to market if there is not adequate funding and investment in rural roads, bridges, waterways and ports.
The next transportation bill should also ensure that exemptions from hours-of-service (HOS) rules provide flexibility for agricultural haulers and farm supply transporters by passing the Haulers of Agriculture and Livestock Safety Act.
With some proposals calling for the elimination of fuel vehicles, the ag groups called for flexibility for types of fuel use. “Attention should be put on finding efficiencies across engine and fuel types to achieve positive climate outcomes, while also focusing on achieving efficiencies in hauling that gets more trucks off the road while still being extremely efficient.”
The groups also suggest Congress authorize a pilot program to gradually increase federal truck weight limits. Interstate highways have lower truck weight limits than many state roads, creating a barrier to economic and environmental efficiency, the letter notes.
They also suggest stablishing a tolerance to account for load shifts. “Load shifts during transport can result in tickets for drivers because a portion of the truck becomes heavier than allowed under current law even though the overall truck weight is below the federal truck weight limit of 80,000 pounds,” the groups say.
The letter warns that efforts to increase liability insurance for trucks beyond the current $750,000 level would increase freight costs with no direct safety benefit. They suggest maintaining the current level of financial responsibility for trucks.
Federal commercial driving license restrictions that prohibit drivers aged 18-20 from crossing state lines creates an obstacle to recruiting a generation of drivers into the industry, the letter states. It suggests ensuring federal and state commercial driving license restrictions are harmonized. There are 49 U.S. states that allow 18-year-olds to obtain a CDL, but until federal law is changed, they cannot drive across state lines until they are 21. The letter recommends that Congress create a pathway for CDL holders aged 18-20 to drive across state lines by incorporating the bipartisan DRIVE Safe Act.
Due to heavy rains and other weather-related issues, farm-related services industries are not able to fully utilize temporary drivers who operate under the Restricted Agricultural CDL. The ag groups suggest increasing flexibility of “Restricted CDL” drivers in farm-related service industries to account for weather-related disruptions.
“The next surface transportation bill is an opportunity to enact policies that foster a more environmentally responsible, productive and economically viable freight transportation system to keep America’s agricultural and manufacturing industries competitive in the world market,” the letter notes.