By Max Fisher, Vice President of Economics and Government Relations
NGFA and a coalition of food and agricultural organizations on Jan. 7 sent the transition team of President-elect Joe Biden a statement outlining major transportation policies and initiatives that would enhance the efficient and cost-effective transport of agricultural and food products.
The letter provided recommendations for each of the three primary freight transportation modes: motor, rail and waterborne.
Motor Carrier: For motor carrier transportation, NGFA and its coalition partners said exemptions to commercial truck driver hours-of-service (HOS) rules remain vitally important to the food and agriculture sector given surges in demand for truck capacity needed for various reasons throughout the year. Specifically, NGFA and the coalition urged the Biden administration to make the following four incremental changes to the agricultural exemption to the HOS rules.
- Eliminate the “planting and harvesting periods” requirements to ensure uniformity within all states. Most states already have adopted a year-round agricultural exemption (Jan. 1 – Dec. 31) given the diverse range of crops and modern agricultural practices that result in truck movements throughout the year.
- Provide a 150-air-mile exemption from HOS regulations on the backend of truck movements for those transporting agricultural commodities. This would build upon the current exemption for the beginning of hauls at the “source” and simply would add the term “destination.” This change also would avoid penalizing drivers for doing their job safely in remote areas away from major highways, as well as to provide for proper animal health and welfare practices for livestock being transported.
- Include a pilot program for transporters of farm supplies who would be allowed to operate under an expanded air-mile radius where the agency can collect data from participating agribusinesses over a multi-year period to confirm there are no adverse impacts on transportation safety.
- Finalize the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration interim rule updating the definition of an agricultural commodity to provide clarity to ag haulers in determining eligible freight for the agricultural exemption to the HOS rules.
NGFA and the coalition provided the following comments on additional motor carrier policies that could be updated to enhance agricultural transport:
- Adopt a 10 percent load-shift axle tolerance for trucks transporting cargo in trailers specifically designed to hold dry bulk goods. Such a load-shift tolerance would increase the maximum weight limit for axles or axle groups but would leave the maximum gross vehicle weight limit unchanged.
- Oppose any increase in the minimum financial responsibility (i.e., insurance) requirement for motor carriers. An increase would cause even greater targeting of truckers and lead to the introduction of higher truck freight rates and fewer for-hire motor carriers, with no demonstrable improvement in motor carrier safety.
- Support a pathway to allow drivers 18 to 20 years of age to operate commercial motor vehicles in interstate commerce. Federal-level commercial driving license (CDL) restrictions on drivers aged 18 to 20 create an obstacle to recruiting a new generation of drivers into the industry, the statement noted. Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia allow 18- to 20-year-old CDL holders to operate in intrastate commerce.
- Provide states with the flexibility to increase the maximum gross vehicle weight for trucks on the Interstate Highway System in their jurisdictions. In March 2020, Congress provided states with the option to determine truck weight limits through Section 22003 of the “Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security Act” (CARES Act). Approximately 20 states safely utilized the emergency authority to increase and harmonize truck weight limits for state and Interstate Highways within their jurisdictions.
Freight Rail: On freight rail transportation, NGFA and the coalition said it is critical that the Surface Transportation Board (STB) provide meaningful regulatory oversight and serve as a neutral body to adjudicate rail marketplace disputes. Continuing efforts to modernize this critical agency under the Biden administration will help farmers, agribusinesses and manufacturers be more viable and competitive, the statement noted, while still preserving a vibrant and profitable rail industry.
Specifically, NGFA and the coalition said many of STB’s regulations and policies that were implemented decades ago by the STB and its predecessor, the Interstate Commerce Commission, no longer are relevant in today’s profitable and less competitive rail marketplace, and need to be updated or eliminated, as was borne out in a landmark 2015 study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board. These include the need to instill more rail-to-rail competition; define the meaning of railroad’s legal common carrier obligation (the legal requirement “to provide service upon reasonable request”); implement meaningful rail rate reform, and to review the current commodity exemptions from STB regulation, including those for certain forest and paper products.
NGFA and the coalition said an immediate need is for the new president to nominate a Democrat to serve as chairman. NGFA and the coalition recommended that President Biden appoint current Commissioner Martin Oberman as the new STB chairman.
Inland Waterways and Ports: Concerning waterborne freight transportation, NGFA and the coalition urged the new administration to continue robust investments in infrastructure to modernize the outdated locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River System – most of which are well beyond their 50-year lifespan and are only 600 feet, far short of the 1,200-foot capacity to handle modern barge tows. NGFA and the coalition also urged the new administration to support the Federal Maritime Commission’s (FMC) investigation of detention and demurrage, export container availability and container return practices of ocean carriers. Currently, there are concerns over ocean carrier and terminal practices at U.S. ports, such as ignoring the agency’s existing Demurrage and Detention Guidelines, making containers unavailable to carry agricultural export cargo, cancelling or refusing export container bookings and a persistent lack of timely notice of changes to U.S. shippers.
President-elect Biden has nominated Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, to serve as secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation. (Read more about Biden’s cabinet picks in the article below). Until the new administration’s nominees to head the various federal agencies are confirmed by the Senate, it is expected that the new president’s political appointees that do not require Senate confirmation – along with career civil servants – will oversee the administration of federal operations on an acting basis.