Transportation and the Price of Sugar

A blue semi-truck hauling a heavy load of sugarcane down the highway.

Sugar is big business in Louisiana, the pelican state, home of Mardi Gras. The warm southern climate and moist air from the Gulf of Mexico are ideal for growing raw sugarcane. It sprouts from the sun-drenched earth by the truckload. A single acre of Louisiana soil can yield as many as 30 to 50 tons of sugarcane. About 13 million tons of it are harvested in the state each year.

Onto the trucks goes the raw sugarcane. Fifty. Eighty. Even 100,000 tons per truckload. From there, it travels the state's highways to one of Louisiana's 11 major sugar mills. There, it’s processed into one of the many forms we’re used to seeing on grocery store shelves. Then it’s shipped again, to places all over the world.

Just how much refined sugar does the state of Louisiana produce each year? According to the American Sugar Cane League (yes, that’s a thing), it's enough to fill about half of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, home of the New Orleans Saints football team. Tea, anyone?

A tablet computer screen picturing a man, Bill King, from the Louisiana DOTD

Click to view Bill's video:

What’s sweet for business is also good for the Louisiana economy. The sugar industry contributes billions in revenue to the state each year. But there’s another side to this story. One which almost gave Louisiana state legislators a toothache.

Highway pavement damage due to overloaded semi-trucks is a national concern. This road damage costs American taxpayers millions of dollars in repairs and maintenance each year. Though roads are built to last, the effects of heavy vehicles begin to take their toll over time. Cracks and deformities in the road begin to add up. Then it’s time to send out the road crew.

In Louisiana, sugar companies were formerly allowed to pay $100 for a permit that let them haul up to 100,000 tons of sugarcane per truck. The fee, the State hoped, would help to offset the cost inflicted to the roads by heavy truck damage. It was eventually discovered that the cost of pavement damage per year was much higher than expected. Heavy trucks were actually causing about $5,500 in damage per year per truck.

Lawmakers were faced with a problem: how to curb the costly road damage without hurting business and the state economy. The legislature turned to the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (LaDOTD) for a solution. LaDOTD is responsible for overseeing transportation in the state and for maintaining the roads and highways. The agency enlisted the help of researchers at Louisiana State University(LSU) to examine the issue.

The solution turned out to be a matter of science. Researchers discovered that adding a third axle to the trucks distributed their weight more evenly over the road, causing much less damage than before. If a sugarcane company wanted to haul more sugarcane—up to 100,000 tons at a time—they could do so by adding another axle to the their trucks. This discovery, which seemed so simple, ended up saving taxpayers millions of dollars. At the same time, sugar producers were able to distribute more of their product to the market.

The project was so successful that it was featured by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials as one of the most valuable research projects of 2013. It was by sheer coincidence that the award was designated as the “Sweet 16” year’s best research projects.

To learn more about the case of the Louisiana sugarcane industry, check out the accompanying video, which features Bill King of LaDOTD. You can also go online to learn about your state’s department of transportation (DOT) and the transportation issues unique to your state or region. Who knows? Maybe someday one of your ideas will help solve a problem and make life sweeter for everyone.

Aaron Mack
Fast Forward: Volume 2: Issue 2 - Trucking and Logistics