Rafael Aldrete's transportation career has taken him all over the globe, from Europe, to Africa, to Asia. Today, you’ll find him at Texas A&M's Transportation Institute (TTI), where he's working on a project that will benefit the citizens of North and South America.
Rafael is studying ways to improve the flow of good across the Mexico-United States border. The border is the gateway for goods travelling between the American continents, Rafael explained. The reason you can find tomatoes in the supermarket during the winter, for instance, is because of freight trucks that cross the border into the United States from Mexico.
However, people and goods can’t cross the border unchecked, Rafael explained, which causes a problem. Truck drivers often have to wait in line for routine cargo inspections and to show border patrol agents the required documents needed to cross the border into the United States. This process can lead to long delays as freight trucks sit idly in line at the border for hours at a time.
Ultimately, these delays cost money, which leads to higher prices at the supermarket.
Imagine running a freight company that ships fresh fruit from Mexico into the United States each day of the week. If your truck drivers have to sit in line at the border for up to a few hours both ways, that’s a lot of wasted fuel, driver wages, and time. That extra delivery cost translates into higher prices for the consumer. Suddenly, bananas are $1.99 per bunch instead of 99 cents. Or, you go to the grocery store for fresh strawberries, and there aren't any left on the shelves.
But there’s another problem. Border delays also harm the environment in border cities. Idling trucks release more pollution into the air at that location than if the truck were passing through the border without delays. This pollution results in lower air quality, smog, and health problems for local residents in border cities like El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Rafael and his team are trying to address these problems through their research. By reducing border delays, they could cut pollution and also positively affect international trade.
For example, researchers at TTI used technology to help find a partial solution to border wait times. They outfitted a number of trucks and cars in Mexico and the United States with tracking chips that were connected to computers at TTI’s research laboratory. The chips collected data about the amount of time trucks and cars were waiting at the border at different hours of the day. The researchers used this information to create a computer program to tell trucking companies the times of day when waits at the border were the shortest. This allows companies to schedule their routes so drivers are crossing the border at that time. This could help the companies save time and money, and could reduce the congestion and pollution caused by long wait times and idling trucks.
Technology, Rafael said, is helping his team do more than was ever before possible in their research. That’s why he feels that today’s computer and technologically-savvy generation will find exciting and important possibilities waiting for them in the field of freight transportation. And it goes far beyond looking at the borders. Imagine finding ways for cargo trucks to move freight more quickly, safely, and cheaply from city to city or state to state. Or helping a federal agency find faster ways to transport food and medicine to the scene of a natural disaster? How about delivering aid to developing countries more efficiently and at a lower travel cost? Combining technology and economics creates new ways of improving trade and lowering the cost of goods.
So the next time you go to the supermarket and pass the produce aisle, stop for a second and think. Many of the products we rely on would not be there without a freight network that works efficiently and smoothly. However, as the global population continues to grow, the network is facing increasing challenges. Highways cannot be built and repaired quickly enough. Fuel is becoming more scarce. Pollution is becoming more of an issue. In the face of these challenges, will the network continue to work efficiently like it does today? It will if Rafael has anything to say about it, but everyone retires someday. Somebody will have to fill his shoes. Will it be you?