Our rural road network has high maintenance costs in sparsely populated areas. Because our rural roads have a traffic fatality rate that is more than three times higher than all other roads, our challenge is to make them affordable and safe.
Rural infrastructure costs farmers time, fuel and safety
It’s just human nature. We take all kinds of things for granted, but nothing so much as the roads and bridges that get us to town, to our fields and to the grain elevator.
The condition of the country’s roads and bridges affects our activities, bank accounts and personal safety on a daily basis. Long-delayed maintenance schedules are leading to load limit reductions and temporary closures.
Mylo, N.D., farmer Jason Martodam has to truck grain 60 miles to the elevator due to the closure of bad roads.
"It’s costing us thousands of dollars per year, if I figure in fuel costs," he says. Furthermore, one alternative route for him is down to 6 tons per axle. As for the money lost, he says, "I can’t make it up."
For a farmer with 300 acres of corn and 200 acres of soybeans who faces diesel prices near $4 per gallon, the impact of a bridge closure could mean a loss of 5¢ per bushel, according to independent research completed this year by Informa Economics for the Illinois Corn Marketing Board and the Illinois Soybean Association. If the detour extends to 30 miles or, in a worst-case scenario, 50 miles, the impact could be 11¢ per bushel, translating to more than $6,000 in additional costs annually for 500 acres. For 2,000 acres, costs could be an additional $24,000.
The numbers track with a 2009 Informa study for the Indiana Soybean Alliance (ISA) and the Indiana Corn Marketing Council (ICMC). A 5¢ per bushel loss "is a fair assessment for a 25-mile detour with diesel at $4 per gallon," says Emily Otto-Tice, director of supply and infrastructure for ISA and ICMC.
So how bad is the condition of rural roads and bridges nationally? A September 2011 study by TRIP, a national transportation research group, found the following:
- Rural roads have a traffic fatality rate that is more than three times higher than that for all other roads.
- In 2009, non-Interstate rural roads had a traffic fatality rate of 2.31 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles of travel, compared with a fatality rate on all other roads of 0.76 deaths for an equal number of miles. Crashes on the nation’s rural, non-Interstate routes resulted in 17,075 fatalities in 2009, accounting for 51% of the nation’s 33,808 traffic deaths in 2009.
- In 2008, 12% of the nation’s major rural roads were rated in poor condition and another 43% were rated in fair condition. Vermont has the highest percentage of roads rated poor, at 43%, followed by Oklahoma at 30%; Kansas, 28%; Missouri, 20%; California, 18%; South Dakota, 17%; and Illinois, 16%.
- In 2010, 13% of the nation’s rural bridges were rated as structurally deficient and 10% were rated as functionally obsolete. A bridge is structurally deficient if there is significant deterioration of the bridge deck, supports or other major components. Structurally deficient bridges are often posted for lower weight or closed to traffic, restricting or redirecting large vehicles, including commercial trucks, school buses and emergency vehicles.
|In a perfect world, this aging bridge would be taller to accommodate a passing tugboat pulling a barge fleet, as well as wider to accommodate larger trucks. In the agricultural export game, time is money to get products to consumers faster.
PHOTO: Pam Smith
A looming problem. Not all producers are being impacted by bad roads and bridges, but they can see the writing on the wall. Ron Kindred, who farms in Atlanta, Ill., and sits on the Illinois Soybean Association board, is not having to take any detours because of closed roads and bridges, but he’s convinced it’s coming if the problem of maintenance is not solved.
The Illinois board worked with Informa to define the issues with the state’s roads and bridges. Developing a solution is the next step, he says.
Kindred, along with a number of other individuals and studies, says the solution is both simple and complex: The U.S. needs to spend more money on its rural roads and bridges. What makes that so challenging is that it almost certainly means higher taxes or user fees.
One idea that was proposed during a recent Iowa Governor’s Task Force meeting intrigued Roy Arends, an Alexander, Iowa, farmer. The proposal was to initiate a 1¢ per bushel checkoff on grain sold that, in turn, would be used by counties for road and bridge maintenance. Arends, a board member of the Soy Transportation Coalition, supports the concept and says the farmers he talks to are split 50/50 on the idea. Overall, he supports higher road use taxes and says they are among the fairest taxes.
"But the word ‘tax’ is poison for these politicians. It’s been demonized as evil to raise taxes, but I don’t feel that way," Arends adds.
In his area, the blacktop needs to be surfaced, and bridges are being worked on, "but it’s painfully slow." With a low load limit, Arends can’t take a full load of corn, so he has to search for an alternate route.
"It seems like the county is falling behind on road and bridge maintenance," Arends says. "As yields have increased, we rely more and more on the local infrastructure, and it’s not keeping up very well."
Not one to wait for the county to catch up on its maintenance schedule, he ordered gravel and graded a bad stretch of a road himself. He says he’ll do it again if he needs to.
Bad to worse. The erosion of the nation’s road and bridge infrastructure is worsening over time. "I can see that roads have gotten rougher in the past 10 years," Arends says.
Number of Bridges Structurally Deficient
In Indiana, for instance, on a rating system of 1 to 10, the quality of the state’s roads was reduced from 5.5 in 2001 to 4.3 in 2009. "We’ve gone from the high end of fair to borderline poor," says John Habermann, program manager for the Indiana Local Technical Assistance Program.
There is more wear and tear on rural roads because the trucks and other equipment that travel over them are bigger, Habermann says. Larger trucks travel slower on county roads than on larger state roads, so they have contact with the roads longer, which causes more road stress and contributes to their breakdown.
So serious are road problems in some states that paved rural roads are being graveled.
"South Dakota county roads are only fair, and at the township level, almost none are in excellent shape," says Ken Skorseth, program manager for the South Dakota Local Transportation Assistance Program.
Roads and bridges have been eroding during the past two years in particular, he says, due to harsh winters and wet springs. A flat budget for a decade hasn’t helped. In parts of the state, Skorseth says, farmers have had difficulty moving product.
"By turning some roads back to gravel, we can maintain them cheaper, although dust, reduced speeds and chipped windshields occur," he says.
Show me the money. "Money is the big elephant in the room," says Otto-Tice, of ISA and ICMC. She notes that not only are the costs of maintaining bridges and roads three to four times what they were 10 years ago, the amount of money available is also smaller, so roads and bridges are being repaired every seven to 10 years instead of every three to five.
One of the key reasons that the nation’s transportation system is falling into such disarray is that the gas tax, which is the primary way in which roads and bridges are funded, was last raised in 1993. It is not indexed for inflation. Ironically, surveys show that most Americans believe the tax, which is currently 18.4¢, is indexed for inflation.
"Steel, labor, concrete—all costs of building roads and bridges—continue to go up," says Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.
Another problem: The Highway Trust Fund, which is funded by the gas tax, is used not only for bridges and highways, but for mass transit projects and bike paths. These might be worthy projects, but they cut into the money available for highways and bridges in rural areas, Steenhoek says.
Something else that is desperately needed, he says, is a new highway bill. The previous one expired on Sept. 30, 2009, and since then has been operating through a series of extensions.
"The bone of contention is how to pay for it," Steenhoek says. "It is facing some strong headwinds with either a tax or going into more debt. Neither is very attractive."
Several solutions for tackling our infrastructure problems are being discussed. One concept that seems to be gaining traction at the federal level is what’s called an infrastructure bank, or
I-Bank, though the details have yet to be worked out, according to Sharada Vadali, an economist with the Texas Transportation Institute. Most of the nation’s infrastructure is currently funded through federal dollars, or bonds. The I-Bank is viewed as a way to provide a central source for financing construction projects.
Nick Yaksich, vice president of global public policy for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), says increasing the gas tax faces tough sledding in Congress, even though it might be the most logical solution.
AEM supports the TRIP study’s conclusions. "The needs are so great. Our message to Congress is to look at user fee increases, tolling, and expanding opportunities for private investment," the organization says.
Gaining efficiency. The future of our rural economy depends not only on smooth, safe surfaces to transport more grain, but on efficiencies in the transportation system. Darrin Roth, director of highway operations for American Trucking Associations, hopes for congressional passage of a bill introduced in the Senate in April that would allow for six axles and 97,000 lb. per truck.
Roth says the increase would help agriculture and other industries be more competitive internationally by lowering shipping costs. He notes that U.S. competitors such as Canada,
Mexico and Europe already have at least a 97,000-lb. load limit. "That has put the U.S. at a disadvantage," he says.
Rural America enjoys a transportation system that has served us well for decades. The realization of this is the first step toward its renewal.
- November 2011