As infrastructure ages, WSU economist finds best ways to help ag crops flow

Busy container lot with colorful shipping containers.
Transportation of agricultural goods by train, truck and ship is critical to our economy. Research at WSU’s Freight Policy Transportation Institute, is focusing needed attention on aging infrastructure.

From apples and pears to wheat and potatoes, the bounty of Northwest agriculture depends on roads, bridges, railways and ports to reach a global market.

But that vital infrastructure is often decades old, crumbling and inefficient—a bottleneck not just for regional agriculture, but the national economy as well.

A research team led by Washington State University economist Eric Jessup, director of the WSU Freight Policy Transportation Institute, is focusing needed attention on aging infrastructure.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Transportation Services Division, scientists are developing an improved process for prioritizing infrastructure investments, improving the flow of crops and helping farmers compete globally.

Transport adds value

“Everything you wear, everything you use in your daily life, and, probably, everything you eat has been moved from somewhere,” said Jessup. “Transportation is a big part of what gives products their value. What’s the value of an apple sitting in an orchard, or wheat in a Washington field? Not much, unless you can harvest, transport and sell it.

Head shot of Eric Jessup.
Eric Jessup is director of the WSU Freight Policy Transportation Institute.

“If you improve how things flow, you can lower costs and open up new markets to sell your products,” added Jessup, who is researching transportation improvements to help the wheat, soybean, poultry, and tree-nut industries.

Earlier this year, he hosted workshops for wheat industry stakeholders in Seattle, Wash., on soybeans in St. Louis, Mo., and on tree nuts in Oakland, Calif. This September, he will host a workshop in Atlanta, Ga., to present findings on infrastructure challenges and improvements affecting the poultry export supply chain.

Jessup tells stakeholders that transportation infrastructure needs far exceed available funding, “so how limited funds are used, and which projects are selected, is more important than ever.”

Bad grade

U.S. transportation infrastructure scores a D+ from the American Society of Structural Engineers’ latest annual Infrastructure Report Card, which measures capacity, conditioning, funding and other factors. It wasn’t always this way.

Generations of public investment in highways, canals, bridges and rail was what made U.S. agriculture competitive in a global market.

“In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, we built highways, barge systems, railways that significantly impacted farmers’ ability to get their product to market, efficiently,” Jessup said. “But investment hasn’t kept pace with our needs. It’s a serious issue.”

To help address it, Jessup’s team is offering a new approach to prioritizing transportation investments that span the entire agricultural export supply chain. Their approach combines the economic impacts from construction with the positive network effects to shippers.

“If we add funding for infrastructure, where should it go?” Jessup said. “That’s what we’re trying to answer.

Efficient fixes

For each industry, the team built a list of major infrastructure projects from ports, major railroads, state transportation departments, metropolitan planning organizations, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“We then selected a handful of unique private and public projects to model, from all parts of the supply chain, to illustrate the process,” Jessup said.

Northwest selections included rehabilitation of the lower Columbia River jetties; new rail bridges and track at Sandpoint, Idaho; congestion improvements at the Portland International Marine Terminal; and rail expansion at Longview, Wash. Other projects included Mississippi River bridge upgrades near St. Louis, Mo., and improvements to the Port of Long Beach, Calif.

The team’s finished models could help public agencies make precise and effective upgrades, giving a new lease on life to agriculture’s transportation lifeline.

“Transportation is critical to our economy, and our global competitors are fast catching up,” Jessup said. “Our research helps identify where to make much-needed improvements that help industries stay competitive in a changing world. From the farmer to the customer, when crops can flow efficiently, everyone benefits.”