Alternative Fuels, Multimodal Freight Transportation Access/Efficiency and Infrastructure Investment Needs

Focus Area



Air Quality







Research Idea Scope

Problem: An emerging public policy issue that will likely have significant and potentially far-reaching impacts is the growing interest in and use of renewable and bio-fuels. The goal of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources while promoting domestically produced renewable fuels such as ethanol and bio-diesel have considerable impacts on agricultural/food markets, rural communities, the environment and transportation systems/infrastructure. The benefits and success of these renewable fuels in the marketplace depends on a long list of dynamic uncertainties that can dramatically alter economic viability and long-term sustainability, including transportation efficiency (both into and out of processing facilities). Investment in ethanol processing plants throughout the Midwest U.S. has already increased farm-gate corn prices and land allocated to corn production as grain producers respond to market prices, leading to increased cost of production for livestock/meat producers who utilize corn/soybean as inputs and decreased economic viability for ethanol plants that developed production/processing expectations with lower input prices. This is particularly complicated when considering the net energy use/utilization and air pollution aspects for ethanol when compared with fossil fuels, including all production, transportation, processing, distribution and passenger vehicle consumption. The movement toward alternative fuels is occurring at a time when agriculture producers are increasingly reliant on multimodal freight transportation efficiencies to access and compete in global markets and appropriate investment in rural road and transportation infrastructure maintenance is critical. As a result, many research questions arise regarding how the adoption of alternative fuel technology, resultant crop production pattern shifts, private investment in transportation equipment/facilities to ship renewable/bio-fuel, and how different types of bio-fuel subsidies will impact the freight transportation system and the agricultural/food markets that rely upon this system.  Objective: Identify the extent and magnitude of how adoption of alternative fuels will impact: 1) Agricultural/food production patterns and product movements; 2) Investment in equipment/facilities to ship/move alternative fuels; 3) Multimodal freight system efficiency; 4) Modal shifts and traffic pattern changes and the resultant impact on the rural road highway infrastructure and investment/maintenance of rural road planning/finance; 5) Environmental and air quality changes as a result of these shifts in production, processing, distribution and consumption.

Urgency and Payoff

The results of this research effort will help shape/guide transportation and agriculture policies that improve freight system efficiency while providing adequate infrastructure maintenance/investment funding as alternative/bio-fuel production/consumption becomes more significant.  

Suggested By

AT030, Agricultural Transportation Committee, as specified in the TRB Research Needs Database, 2009.