Research explores interdependence of urban and rural freight in Minnesota

Without a safe, efficient, reliable, and robust freight transportation system in Minnesota, many residents would not have access to the goods and materials they need to live, work, and recreate. Businesses rely on the freight transportation network to distribute their products to customers and receive raw materials needed to manufacture items.

In a white paper sponsored by the Minnesota Freight Advisory Committee, mechanical engineering researcher Chen-Fu Liao explored Minnesota’s freight transportation system, focusing on the interdependence of rural and urban freight movement and the value of a well-connected freight network to all Minnesotans.

“People may have their own idea and definition of ‘rural’ based on their perceptions. One person’s small town could be another person’s weekend city shopping hub,” Liao says. “In this white paper, we largely consider the seven-county Twin Cities metro area as entirely urban and the rest of the Minnesota region (Greater Minnesota) as rural.”   

In both urban and rural areas, Minnesota manufacturers and farmers primarily rely on trucks to transport freight. According to data from the 2018 Freight Analysis Framework, about 93 percent of freight movement (by weight) from rural Minnesota to the Twin Cities is carried by truck, as is about 86 percent of freight from the metro to rural areas. About 14 and 7 percent of freight is carried to and from rural areas, respectively, by rail. A relatively small portion of freight is carried by water, pipeline, and air.

The importance of trucking to freight movement in Minnesota means that traffic congestion, road conditions, and delays caused by construction are concerns to manufacturers, freight carriers, and farmers. Traffic congestion, in particular, can be a key economic factor for facility location and can affect manufacturing growth.

Across the state, the business ecosystem depends on critical transportation links between urban and rural areas, Liao says—and not just on the roads. For example, wind turbine equipment is often transported through the Port of Duluth and then by truck to and from wind farms and manufacturing facilities in southwest Minnesota. In northwest Minnesota, transportation equipment and machinery parts arrive at manufacturing facilities primarily by truck. Some finished products are trucked to the Twin Cities, where they are loaded onto rail bound for export via coastal ports. In the Winona area of southeast Minnesota, intermodal facilities ship and receive commodities via both rail and truck and serve as an important connecting point for agricultural products that are later transferred from truck to barge.

Because of this interdependence, freight improvements and investments that better connect urban and rural regions provide significant value, yielding both direct and indirect benefits. According to Liao, direct benefits include saving on travel time and operational costs, decreasing vehicle emissions, and improving ambient air quality. Indirect benefits include new or additional employment opportunities and support for regional economic growth.

“Freight movement, regardless of mode and where in the state it came from or went, is the backbone of the Minnesota economy,” Liao says. “The diverse Minnesota economy and its future success depend on a sustainable freight infrastructure that effectively connects urban and rural ecosystems for further economic growth and advancement.”


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