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Transportation improvements needed for better efficient produce industry

Transportation will play a critical role in the future of the Texas fruit and vegetable industry, says a Texas A&M Extension economist.

Marco Palma, speaking to a vegetable production and management seminar at the recent Texas Produce Convention in San Antonio, Texas, said a multi-modal transportation system, one that uses several means of transportation instead of relying on trucking, will be necessary to improve efficiency.

“Currently, transporting Texas produce depends on trucks,” Palma said. But the trucking industry has problems.

“For one thing, shipping Texas produce is seasonal,” he said. “April through June is the peak.” Truckers and trucking companies need a consistent source of goods to establish routes that keep fleets moving. “Variations in production is a disadvantage for the trucking industry,” Palma said.

Other challenges include rising fuel prices, a shortage of long-haul drivers (currently at 20,000 short and possibly to 111,00 by 2014), and urban congestion that slows movements.

“Traffic congestion in large cities, especially those on the East Coast, is bad and will get much worse,” Palma said. But it's bad enough in Texas, with more than 300,000 miles of road networks and the nation's largest energy consumption. “Texas consumes 20 percent of all the fuel in the United States.”

Palma said fuel price, currently at $2.40 per gallon for diesel, is up from $1.11 since 1995. “Increase is likely to continue.”

With those challenges, he said the industry needs a more versatile and more efficient transportation system. “We need an intermodal terminal with multiple means of transportation working together,” he said. Trucks, ships, railroads and planes all play roles in such a system.

The high cost to set up such an operation is the main obstacle, Palma said. But the possibility exists for an intermodal terminal in McAllen, Texas.

“The success of the produce industry depends on dependable transportation,” Palma said. “But it's difficult to change transportation options in the short run. We need along-term solution and we need to start the process now.”

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