Uncovering manufacturers' perspectives on the transportation system

It's no secret that manufacturing plays a key manufacturingrole in driving economic growth, or that transportation is essential for the success of any manufacturing operation. While the relationships among manufacturing, transportation, and economic growth have been studied on a large scale, however, there is often little dialogue between transportation organizations and the manufacturers themselves. A recently completed pilot study conducted jointly by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and University of Minnesota Extension aims to address this communication gap.

"We wanted to talk directly with a diverse group of manufacturers and carriers in southwest Minnesota in order to learn about their specific challenges, priorities, and needs," says MnDOT market research director Donna Koren. "Using an innovative project methodology, we identified simple, rich, and actionable findings that will benefit the economy of both the region and the state."

The pilot project focused on 12 counties in southwest Minnesota that make up MnDOT District 8. The research team began by identifying key industry clusters within the region; industry clusters have been shown to be driving economic forces because they sell outside the local, state, and national market—bringing money into the region and creating jobs in other economically dependent industries such as retail and food service. Ultimately, more than 172 regional businesses were contacted for participation in this project, and 75 in-person interviews were completed with manufacturers, shippers, and carriers.

"In order to best serve the transportation users in Minnesota and to make the best decisions that we can with limited transportation funding, we must understand the perspectives of the people we serve," says Jon Huseby, MnDOT's district engineer for this region and project sponsor. "In the context of this study, we chose to focus on businesses [that] have a very significant impact on the economy and quality of life in (Greater) Minnesota—that being manufacturers."

The research team also viewed this project as a relationship-building tool.  "We wanted to open the dialogue between MnDOT and these important regional businesses so that they would know how to ask for help if they needed it," says Koren. "We also included economic development officials, chambers of commerce, regional development commissions, and county and city engineers in the project. We expect this will help us all find ways to work together to support economic growth."

During the interviews, participants were encouraged to focus their comments on high-value, low-cost improvements that MnDOT can address in the short term without over-promising projects that currently cannot be funded. The result of these interviews was a wealth of new information and important findings in the areas of transportation infrastructure, operations and maintenance, communication, and policy. For example, findings included the need for smooth pavements and wide shoulders, the value of advance-warning lights at intersections with traffic signals, the importance of highway safety, the challenges of maneuvering oversized vehicles through roundabouts, and manufacturers' desire for improved communications regarding such things as road conditions and detours. 

"Some of the industry-specific transportation issues were eye-opening, such as the critical need for smooth routes to transport delicate, high-tech equipment without breakage and the importance of keeping vehicles transporting live animals constantly moving to ensure air circulation," says Humphrey School research fellow Frank Douma.

The research team will compile the findings from the pilot program into a final report due out by the end of 2013. In the meantime, MnDOT is working to address a number of the challenges and suggestions uncovered through the pilot program. Then, agency officials will explore using the best practices developed in the pilot project to carry this program to other MnDOT districts and support economic vitality throughout the state.