IMX Speaker Discusses Transportation Infrastructure Investments

Eric Jessup gave one of the first day’s sessions on May 23 at the Inland Marine Expo (IMX) on how best to prioritize transportation infrastructure investments. Jessup, a professor in the School of Economic Sciences at Washington State University and associate director of the Freight Policy Transportation Institute (FPTI), has presented before at the IMX. He was introduced by Mary Lamie, executive director of The St. Louis Regional Freightway, the St. Louis region’s freight district founded in 2015 to facilitate freight partnerships.

Founded in the 1990s, the FPTI has existed under several names, and focuses mostly on agricultural freight. Much of what the FPTI does, said Jessup, is to generate good transportation data that is robust and can be reused.

Jessup reviewed American soybean production, noting that soybeans are the top ag export, worth about $25.4 billion a year, and that the top destinations are China, Mexico and Japan, with about 62 percent of the soy export crop going to China. Containerized soybeans, the so-called “identity preserved” grains that bring a higher premium, mostly go to China and southeast Asia. Jessup noted that America’s transportation advantage over Brazil is getting smaller all the time, as Brazil improves its farm-to-port infrastructure and port systems.

A study the FPTI is currently doing for the U.S. Department of Agriculture is called the PNW Container Availability Study. It will look comparatively at the impact on container movements of four transportation projects, deliberately chosen to represent different transportation modes, areas of the country and types of funding:

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• the Southern California Rail Project, whose “draw area” includes Chicago;

• the building of a second railroad bridge across Lake Pend Oreille at Sandpoint, Idaho, a project that will be completely privately funded by BNSF Railway Company;

• the Merchant’s Bridge replacement in St. Louis, Mo.; and

• the Olmsted Lock and Dam project, which is due to open this year.

Jessup said shippers in the Pacific Northwest have had trouble accessing empty containers returning from places like Detroit—at least, at a price they want to pay. Jessup said the project is challenging. “The time and cost of compiling accurate and usable information is very large,” he said—especially since data are constantly changing. “It’s a dynamic system.” Also, he said, the agencies that will use the data have differing priorities, resulting in different data sets having significance for them.

The FPTI is also putting together a “freight data warehouse” that will gather data that can be used across many federal agencies. “If all entities used similar tools, there could be more consistency in prioritizing” infrastructure investments, Jessup said.

The ag community came to the institute, said Jessup, in response to a request from the Trump administration to help it prioritize infrastructure funding needs. Its findings are due to be presented at an Ag Transportation Summit hosted by the National Grain and Feed Association on July 25–26 in Arlington, Va. Since the early 1980s, the federal government has shifted highway and other infrastructure maintenance burdens to financially overstressed states. Until the Trump administration, federal transportation and infrastructure grants went mostly to urban areas; under Trump, there has been a shift to rural areas, he said. In response to a question, Jessup said that infrastructure investment benefits often accrue not just to the region where a grant is spent, but to wider areas.

The soybean export window is compressed, with the U.S. soy harvest beginning in July or August near the Gulf, then moving north through its peak in mid-September before ending in mid-January. The South American soy harvest begins in February.

In response to a question about the Panama Canal, Jessup said that as yet, few soybean vessels use it, and the “long cut” around Cape Horn is still economical for many shippers. The new locks in the Canal are being used mostly for container vessels so far, he said.