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Inadequate Road and Bridge Infrastructure in Farm Country

From the front seat of his Dodge pickup truck, Steve Greene surveys the local roads in Jewell County, Kansas. There are 1,500 miles of county-maintained roads in this north-central Kansas county, where Greene serves as chairman of the county commission. Only 15 miles are paved; 700 miles are rock or gravel. The rest are minimum-maintenance dirt roads, many of which have outdated bridges and are pocked with ruts.

Whether traveled daily or just a few times per year, every mile of county road is important to the adjoining landowner. That makes road maintenance in an agriculture county tough business. 

“Since I was elected to the county commission, I’ve always said that agriculture is all this county has,” says Greene, who farms with his father, brother, and son. “We need to keep our agriculture infrastructure in good shape.” 

Jewell County is a microcosm of what’s happening in many Midwest counties. Quality roads and bridges are essential in getting produce from farm to market. Unfortunately, they’re falling apart. They crumble under the weight of today’s farm equipment and vehicles – conveyances often 10 times heavier than the vehicles in operation when roadbeds and bridges were first constructed. 

Road Classifications

The nation’s highway system includes three classes of roads. Federal highways include interstates, plus many four-lane and two-lane highways. These are built with federal dollars and meet high standards of safety and construction processes. State highways are usually connecting roads from community to community within states. Many of these are built and maintained with both federal and state funding. 

Rural roads connect rural homes to local communities. Nationwide, these roads may be paved with concrete or asphalt, simply constructed from a dirt base, or have an all-weather surface such as gravel, rock, or sand. Within each county, some of these rural roads and bridges qualify for state assistance in upkeep and construction. More often than not, however, it’s up to the counties and townships to maintain them. 

USDA tallies the annual value of U.S. agriculture production at $395 billion in 2015. Nearly all of that production was moved on a rural road at some point en route to a destination. This runs counter, though, to the pressure many Midwest state governments face to reduce taxes needed for transportation infrastructure upkeep. 

In Greene’s home state of Kansas, for example, each day for the last six years about $650,000 has been transferred from the state’s Department of Transportation budget to its general fund, just to keep the state budget in the black. Not investing in roads and bridges is a move that could haunt farm states for years to come. 

A 2015 report by a national transportation safety group called TRIP says 15% of the nation’s major rural roads were rated in poor condition; another 39% were rated in mediocre or fair condition. A robust transportation network of roads, railways, and rivers has long been a key to this nation’s rise as an economic power. Kevin Rund, senior director of local government at the Illinois Farm Bureau, worries those advantages are slipping. 

In the last century, more than 20,000 miles of rail line have been abandoned, putting more pressure on trucks to move farm goods across the nation.  

Mike Vehle, state senator for South Dakota’s 20th district, is taking notice. “As a legislator, I don’t want to raise taxes, but with roads, you can pay now or you can pay later. It’s going to cost a whole lot more if you pay later,” he says. 

Critical Infrastructure

All this concerns Rocky Moretti, TRIP’s director of policy and research. “Rural America is the source for the food and energy that are critical to this nation’s health,” he explains. “Rural roads may not carry the traffic volumes you see in urban corridors, but as agriculture and energy extraction has grown in prominence, these systems are carrying increased volume and increasingly larger vehicles. This increased intensity of use is far in excess of what they were built for.” 

Adding more pressure, state governments are tightening road and bridge budgets. 

“Everyone wants good roads, but nobody wants to pay for them,” says Vehle. “Roads, however, are something we determined a long time ago were the responsibility of the government.”

A Revenue Problem

The proportion of road and bridge funding for each state varies, but there are several sources, including motor vehicle registration fees, property tax, special funds from the state, and federal government and motor fuel taxes.

In Illinois, for example, each county collects motor vehicle registration fees as the top source of road and bridge maintenance revenue. Counties, townships, and municipalities share proceeds from the state’s motor fuel tax.

“It’s been 24 years since Illinois raised the motor fuel tax. In that time, the relative value of that tax levy has gone down, and the purchasing power has decreased too,” says Illinois Farm Bureau’s Rund. 

In Illinois, the tax amounts to 19¢ per gallon for gasoline; 21.5¢ per gallon for diesel. The federal motor fuel tax, he adds, has remained the same for 22 years, at 18.4¢ per gallon for gasoline and 22.4¢ per gallon for diesel fuel.

In that 22 years, many rural roads have become outdated. They aren’t wide enough to accommodate today’s traffic. The turning radiuses are too tight, and shoulder slopes are dangerously deep. 

Illinois isn’t the only state in which tax revenue hasn’t kept pace with transportation needs. 

A survey of fuel tax rates in Midwest states indicates many states have not increased fuel tax rates in at least a decade. Missouri’s last changed in 2006. In Nebraska, motor fuel taxes decreased 1¢ per gallon in 2016.

Property taxes are another source of revenue for road maintenance. In most counties, these taxes are divvied up between dozens of local entities. There is only so much of that resource to go around, and raising property tax rates is mighty unpopular.

Most states earmark some money from the state department of transportation each year for special road and bridge projects. These funds fall far short of keeping road infrastructure current, Rund says. 

The bottom line is, it takes lots of money to keep roads and bridges current, according to South Dakota’s Vehle. “The most effective way to get that money is to not focus on the need to raise taxes. We need to focus on the need, which is having an adequate and safe road and bridge infrastructure. Focus on the need, and then focus  on what it takes to meet that need,” he says.

Bridges Everywhere

Each year that Vehle chaired his state’s Senate Transportation Committee, he received an update on the condition of roads operated by the state. Bridges more than 20 feet long (which must be inspected every two years) also were included in the report. Vehle obtained additional data for county, township, and city roads from other stakeholders. 

A good way to judge the quality of rural roads in a county or state is by looking at the results of federally mandated bridge inspections. Roads are important, but bridges are essential. “You might have to drive slow and it may be a pain in the neck, but you can drive over a bad road,” Vehle says. “When a bridge is gone, the ballgame is over. You must fix bridges first.”

Vehle says in 2014, South Dakota had 1,045 bridges considered structurally deficient with need for repair or to have load limits placed upon them. At an average replacement cost of $230,000 each, it would take more than $240 million to replace all the bridges. Yet, the state allocates $5.9 million per year for bridge replacement in rural areas. That money could fix just 26 bridges each year.

Other farm states are in the same boat. Based on TRIP data published in 2015, 26% of all the bridges more than 20 feet long in both Iowa and Missouri are either structurally deficient or obsolete (see chart on opposite page). 

Yet, as Vehle points out, when good roads and bridges decline to fair or poor status, the price tag to rebuild them is far greater than the cost to maintain them in the first place.  

Is the U.S. Staying Competitive?

It’s not just rural roads and bridges that are falling apart. Antiquated lock and dam systems in navigable rivers are making it more difficult to move commodities to ports.  

Farm Bureau has urged Congress to improve the nation’s river system. In 2006, Congress authorized lock and dam improvements on U.S. river ways. “To date, not one dime has been spent,” Illinois Farm Bureau’s Kevin Rund says. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the river systems, has more than $60 billion in authorized construction projects on its books. “A big part of the problem is that there are so many projects vying for a limited pool of money,” he adds.

For now, the U.S. transportation system remains superior to that of competitors. That advantage, however, is waning. Brazil’s Amazon River can support deep-river cargo vessels instead of barges. These ships can move greater quantities of commodities up to 2,300 miles without needing locks and dams. While Brazil is investing heavily in this system, the U.S. is not keeping pace. Congressional leaders haven’t made transportation spending a priority. In the long term, the U.S. economy will suffer, Rund warns. 

“We haven’t seen that long-range investment in transportation. The lack of foresight is disappointing,” Rund says. “We just continue to patch it up with baling wire and duct tape and hope to get by for another year.” 

South Dakota Takes Action

In South Dakota, the trend of poor roads is beginning to reverse. For seven years, state Senator Mike Vehle worked on a new rural infrastructure funding program. Under Senate Bill 1 enacted in 2015, the South Dakota Department of Transportation will fund an annual rural bridge grant program of $15 million (up from $5 million in allocations previously). Following are other provisions of Senate Bill 1.

  • Counties may increase property tax, so long as the money is used for roads and bridges. 
  • Fee increases include raising the gas tax 6¢, increasing license plate fees 20%, and charging 1% more in excise tax on vehicle purchases. 
  • Wheel tax increases $1 per wheel to $5 per wheel (from $4 per wheel), up to 12 wheels.

To be eligible for extra funds, the state had to develop a five-year road and bridge maintenance plan. By South Dakota law, all of these are used only for roads and bridges and cannot be swept into the general budget. 

“We let each county decide which roads and bridges need to be fixed and how to do that. There are tough decisions to be made. Some roads may stay open; others may become minimum maintenance. You aren’t going to be able to keep every mile,” Vehle explains. “But we’ve given these counties the tools to make those decisions.” 

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