Rural Bridges in Crisis

February 14, 2009 11:10 AM

It has been more than a year since the tragic collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis. Since then, transportation analysts have sounded the alarm that our nation's bridges, particularly in rural areas, are in desperate need of upgrades.

"I'd say the No. 1 transportation issue for rural areas is the condition of our bridges," says Ken Eriksen, Informa Economics senior vice president, transportation services. Eriksen spoke at the Farm Journal Forum held in Washington, D.C., in December.

"The percent of bridges that are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete is mind-blowing," Eriksen explains. In fact, in the past six years, the number of highway bridges declared functionally obsolete has outpaced the bridges that are structurally deficient (see chart below).

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, just to maintain the bridge infrastructure at current conditions requires an estimated $8.7 billion in capital investment annually. To improve bridge conditions, it requires an estimated $12.4 billion.

Immediately following the Interstate 35W collapse, Congress approved $1 billion to speed repair and replacement of deficient bridges. But Eriksen and others call this only a "Band-Aid" compared with what is
required each year.

An economic damper. Aside from increased safety, America needs to improve its bridges to continue to move the products and goods that keep the economy strong and the U.S. competitive in global markets, says Pete Rahn, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation.

"We have grossly underfunded our state and federal transportation systems over the last three decades," Rahn says. "If we continue this downward spiral, we risk losing our status as a global leader, as well as precious lives."

At the local level, even one deficient bridge in a rural area can greatly impact the agricultural economy.

"In an urban area, if a bridge has problems, there are detour options," Eriksen explains. "But in the country, a producer may have to drive up to 100 miles around to deliver product to an elevator or processor. All of a sudden, that changes the basis in the area."

Declining bridges can also negate all the development monies being pumped into rural economies in the form of value-added processing, such as a packing plant or an ethanol plant.

"If you cut out a bridge or road to an ag processor due to weight limits, you start to see those rural areas go back to being desolate," Eriksen says.

The challenge is for local government to fight for their share of bridge improvement funding and to be creative in coming up with new funding measures, Eriksen says.

"We are looking at a significant shortfall to fund our infrastructure nationally, and that will have to be made up in different ways, such as new taxes or new user fees or a combination," he says.

The good news, Eriksen adds, is that several new plans are being proposed around the country, including a federal stimulus package by President Barack Obama that includes funds to build up our nation's deteriorating transportation infrastructure.

You can e-mail Jeanne Bernick at

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