Over the Bridge and Through the Woods

Eric Gibson

Eric Gibson

U.S. Soybean Export Council

New U.S. Transportation Project Works to Improve Soybean’s Journey to Market

For soybean farmers in the middle of the United States, loading soybeans onto a barge and sending them down a river is often the most efficient way to move their beans to export position. It is one of the many luxuries of the industry’s efficient supply chain, yet this advantage still requires attention and maintenance. The Soy Transportation Coalition (STC) has a new project to stay on top of maintenance needs in the U.S transportation infrastructure.

STC Works to Keep Beans Moving

The STC, made up of thirteen qualified state soybean boards (QSSBs), the United Soybean Board and the American Soybean Association, works to promote a cost effective, reliable and competitive transportation system. In a recent presentation to QSSB staff, STC CEO Mike Steenhoek discussed several new projects that connect the soy value chain in bringing innovation and improvements to the different modes of transportation used to bring soybeans to domestic or international markets.

More than half of U.S. Soybeans are exported, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service.1According to a recent U.S. Soybean Export Council-funded study, in the journey from farm to crushing plant or export position, the average soybean travels 667 miles.By mode, the average move from farm to market requires 74 miles by truck, 377 miles by rail, and 217 miles by barge. This transportation model works efficiently, especially when compared to other countries. However, continual updates and improvements are necessary to keep the system running smoothly. One innovation project from the STC involves a partnership with local government and universities to promote improved bridge load testing technology.

How Much Does a Bridge Really Hold?

To get to a river port, most farmers drive soybeans over bridges in America’s heartland. Bridge weight limits provide safety not only to the drivers and their beans but also to the bridge itself, to prevent unnecessary wear and tear or costly repairs. When bridge weight limits are incorrectly labeled, this can add to the time it takes beans getting to international customers, as farmers may have to travel long distances to get to another bridge that will accommodate them. With accurate bridge load limits, growers can use more direct transportation routes and more efficiently deliver soybeans to market.

According to Peter Vanderzee, President and CEO of LifeSpan Technologies, a company that delivers condition assessment solutions using sensor technology, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) requires that every bridge in the U.S. be visually inspected every two years, however in their own 2001 study, the FHWA determined that visual inspections are highly variable with few objective benchmarks. The subjective and variable data is used by State departments of transportation to determine weight restrictions, or load postings, for bridges. According to LifeSpan Technologies and data available from the FHWA, when bridges are classified as structurally deficient based on the visual inspection surveys, more restrictive load postings are typically the next step, resulting in lengthy detours, many of them adding five or more miles and wasted time for drivers of farm machinery and transport vehicles.

Using objective sensor technology to evaluate safe bridge weight capacity can reduce the likelihood of rural bridges having incorrect weight restrictions and load labels. When bridge weight capacity is evaluated and proven to safely accommodate legal highway weight, it allows farmers to take a more direct route they may have been avoiding due to unnecessary weight restriction.

In trials last year, STC joined with LifeSpan Technologies in Midland County, Michigan, evaluating three bridges with sensor technology. Based on the results, Midland County removed all three restrictive load postings. Those three bridges that were evaluated impacted an average of 44 trucks each incurring an extra 81,300 miles per year traveled on average by these trucks.2

Expanding Sensor Success

In addition to more accurately assessing which bridges can handle more weight, the bridge testing initiative provides data about which the bridges need improvements or work, and about some that are completely inaccessible. STC initially plans to run the project in the thirteen states that participate in the STC and then expand to other states in need of infrastructure improvements, with the goal of hopefully streamlining and getting soybeans to export position as efficient a process as possible.

This project is just one of several currently in action that showcase the U.S. soy value chain working together to continuously innovate and improve the U.S. transportation system, preserving a part of U.S. soy’s competitive advantage. To learn more about U.S. transportation projects, visit U.S. Soy’s infrastructure project page.