Like so many other industries, the dairy sector continues to face significant supply chain challenges. From the farm to the processing plant to retail or export channels, getting our products to our customers is as difficult as it’s been in recent memory.
And while shortages of PlayStation 5 consoles make the headlines, unstocked grocery store shelves and dairy cases are fundamentally more concerning from a nutritional security perspective. Keeping the nation’s food supply up and running isn’t a “nice to have” — it’s a necessity.
While it’s clear that there are no “silver bullet” fixes for this problem, that doesn’t mean that policymakers can ignore it and hope that things will get better on their own. In our view, Congress and the administration must begin to take meaningful steps to help solve short-term problems, as well as to prevent similar disruptions from occurring in the future.
Age limitations a concern
One of the biggest challenges currently facing the economy is a lack of qualified truck drivers with commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs). Ongoing truck driver shortages have created bottlenecks and led to supply constraints and delivery delays across the country. While pay and benefits have been enhanced in an effort to attract and retain drivers, it’s clear that more needs to be done at the federal level if we really want to make a dent in this problem.
To address the driver shortage, Congress should pass the DRIVE Safe Act, which would establish an apprenticeship program for CDL holders who are 18 to 20 years old to allow them to drive in interstate commerce. Forty-nine states currently allow 18-year-olds to obtain a CDL, but federal law prohibits them from driving across state lines before they are 21. That means that an 18-year-old CDL driver can currently drive a truck 500 miles from San Diego to San Francisco, but she can’t transport goods from the Port of Wilmington, Del., to Philadelphia, which is just over 30 miles away.
Removing this regulatory constraint would make it easier to recruit a new generation of drivers to replace drivers who have recently reached retirement age. A pilot program based on the DRIVE-Safe Act is currently being implemented by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), but it will be important to expand that program nationwide as soon as possible.
Weight-limit increase needed
Another key step that Congress could take to help alleviate the driver shortage would be to increase the federal interstate gross vehicle weight limit for trucks. The current 80,000-pound federal limit was set in 1982 and hasn’t been adjusted in 40 years.
According to a 2015 DOT study (“Compilation of Existing State Truck Size and Weight Laws,” May 2015), increasing truck weights to 91,000 pounds on six axles would reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by 2.4 billion pounds, reduce annual congestion costs by more than $350 million and reduce annual vehicle miles traveled by 1.2 billion miles.
Moreover, raising truck weights would not compromise highway safety. During the early days of the pandemic, Congress and the administration authorized states to issue permits to allow heavier trucks to operate on interstate highways within their borders. Many states took advantage of this temporary authority, and dairy companies and other industries were able to operate fewer trucks with more capacity to move their products through the supply chain. Importantly, there was no increase in reportable accidents during the pilot program period.
By allowing moderately heavier trucks to operate on interstate highways permanently, we could meet the transportation needs of the U.S. dairy industry today more effectively, efficiently, and sustainably by having fewer trucks on the road.
Neither of these changes would completely solve the supply chain problems currently bedeviling our economy. That said, it is time for federal policymakers to take action to not only help alleviate current supply chain challenges but also to ensure that our country is better positioned to weather the next supply chain crisis down the road.