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Most American piggies -- and cows and corn and cantaloupes -- get to market in one of three ways: trucks, which carry about 45 percent of all goods (90 percent of our produce); trains, which carry 32 percent; and barges, which carry 12 percent.
Each freight mode has pluses and minuses:
- Trucks are the most flexible and can access a rich network of publicly-funded roadways, but they are also the most expensive and least energy-efficient choice for long-haul trips, and they tear up rural roadways.
- Rail is more cost-effective and produces less pollution, but our railway network has been shrinking and operators cannot, by and large, access public funds to upgrade it.
- Water transport uses the least fuel, but, with its slow pace and circuitous routes, is cost-effective for only a few types of products.
The use of trucks began to rise sharply after World War II with the development of the interstate highway system. Trucks have long been the primary mode of transport for moving time-sensitive products such as fresh fruits and produce, as well as for getting high-value perishable products from processing plants to retail distribution centers. While rail and barge are more energy-efficient modes for bulky, low-value commodities such as grain, trucks have even become the predominant mode for these products, especially among inland grain-producing areas far from waterways or major rail lines.
More than half of the communities in this country depend exclusively on trucks to meet their outbound transportation needs. Such reliance poses a critical problem for rural agricultural communities: the increasingly heavy vehicles ruin local roads. Consider two rural Kansas counties. When Ottawa County, population 6,000, lost rail service in the mid-1990s, its annual road maintenance bill increased from $1 million to nearly $7 million. The loss of rail service to Harper County, population 6,400, necessitated a $27 million investment in roads and bridges to withstand the additional truck traffic.
It's very hard for rural localities to raise these kinds of funds. Rural roadways account for more than half the nation's network, but carry just over four percent of the total vehicle miles traveled. Since state and federal funding formulas are often based upon vehicle miles, rural areas -- where traffic is light but trucks are heavy -- are at a distinct disadvantage.
In addition, about 25 percent of local roadway revenues come from property taxes and bonds. In efforts to protect working farmlands, rural localities and states often lower the tax rates on these large parcels. But most farms rely on trucks to at least some degree. So, if the farms are successful, costs for roadway and bridge repairs go up, but fewer local tax revenues are available to meet the need.
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Hannah Twaddell is President and founder of Twaddell Associates, LLC, a consulting practice specializing in community planning, public engagement, facilitation, and education. Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, the firm provides planning, facilitation, and educational services to communities, government agencies, and private organizations across the U.S.
Before setting up Twaddell Associates, Hannah was a Senior Transportation Planner with Renaissance Planning Group, where she has worked on transportation planning and public involvement projects in several states. Prior to that, she served as Assistant Director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (in Charlottesville) and as chief staff to the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization.