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Lawmakers Seek Transportation Help For Onion Industry

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Idaho's congressional delegation, along with eastern Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, is asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to waive a trucking rule that is putting the region's onion producers at risk. In a letter dated Monday to Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, Idaho Senators Larry Craig and Mike Crapo and Idaho Congressmen Mike Simpson and C.L. "Butch" Otter joined Walden in asking that the hours-of-service rule on short-haul truckers be waived for storage onion producers in Idaho and eastern Oregon. A waiver would give the Transportation Department a chance to reevaluate its final rule on maximum driving time. "By doing so, the Department could begin to repair the damage done to the agriculture transportation infrastructure in our region," the lawmakers said in the letter to Secretary Mineta. The state of Idaho and Oregon's Malheur County comprise one of the largest onion-producing areas in the nation. It is responsible for supplying more than one-third of all storage onions consumed in the United States. However, a shortage of available trucks and rail cars has left the area's onions growers and shippers without the means to move their products to market. Low prices, coupled with that diminished transportation capability, have placed a number of producers in peril. Some short-haul drivers, including those operating for agricultural supply stores and farm cooperatives, were granted exemptions from Transportation Department limitations on maximum driving time in 1995 because of the unique nature of their business. However, the exemptions were not included in the department's new hours-of-service rules that went into effect in January 2004. "We are troubled that these rules were implemented as a blanket policy without regard to short-haul drivers and specific industries," the senators and representatives wrote Secretary Mineta. "Onion production is a vital part of our states' economy, and revoking the previous agriculture exemption to this rule has caused severe hardship within the industry." [30]