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Our Nation’s Rail, Bridges, and Roads Need Repairs

“Once upon a time, we had the best infrastructure in the world,” says recently retired research scientist David Ellis. Prior to his retirement, Ellis worked at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. In its most recent report, the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranks the U.S. as No. 10 for overall infrastructure quality.

Ellis asks, “How did we let that happen?”

This story is the first in a three-part series looking at the role of transportation and infrastructure in the agriculture industry. In this article, we check out the systems used behind the scenes to get agricultural products from gate to plate, pod to pump, and dock to dish.

This first installment deals with the good, the bad, and the ugly of the transportation systems that move our products over land and across the country. After reviewing the current status of rail, bridges, and roads, it is important to understand the role each plays in the agriculture industry and to look forward to the future.

RAIL

To start, the good. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave rail in the U.S. a B grade.

When possible, transporting grain and other agricultural products via rail is more efficient than by semi. Information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports one rail car can transport as much grain as 4.4 semitrailers. One unit train of 108 cars can transport 424,234 bushels of corn. 

A 2015 report prepared by Steve De Vries of the Iowa County Engineers Association Service Bureau looking at the rail system in Iowa says farmers in the state save 10¢ per bushel due to the availability of rail service.

The ASCE found rail accidents and derailments are down almost 50% in the last 10 years. This may be, in part, due to efforts to redesign highway-rail crossings to separate cars and trucks from train traffic.

Most of the nation’s rail infrastructure is privately owned and maintained by the freight rail industry. That includes companies like BNSF Railway and Union Pacific. These companies are making huge capital investments to keep up the rail network. For example, Class I freight railroads spent $27.1 billion on maintenance, modernization, and expansion projects in 2015.

However, short lines and regional railroads (Class II and Class III) that connect to Class I railroads are more challenged. These Class II and III lines play an important role in helping farmers and other businesses move goods. Yet, because they have less traffic, freight receipts alone are often not enough to fund these lines. Instead, many times, they rely on state and local funding, as well as tax credits to remain operational.

Some unprofitable lines have been abandoned as the industry changes, leaving those communities without rail service at all.

Labor issues are also challenging the rail industry. One rail executive speaking at the 2018 Agricultural Transportation Summit called labor “the toughest nut to crack,” explaining that current low unemployment rates and the need for workers to be located in rural areas make attracting qualified help more difficult. 

Sam Sexhus of BNSF Railway says his company and others have started to offer hiring bonuses, incentives for people staying, and incentives for current employees who recruit others to work for the company.

“These are all things we’ve never done before, but we’re having to do this year because of the employment scenario of the country,” Sexhus explains. 

To combat labor shortages and to grow in efficiency, some rail companies are investing in increased train cars with larger capacity. 

In the future, the ASCE report says, overall, rail demand is expected to increase due to road congestion and rising demand for goods.

Bridges

Moving on to bad news, bridges received lower marks from the ASCE, a C+. Considering the potentially deadly consequences of bridge failure, the grade is concerning.

At the time of the 2017 ASCE report, the average bridge in the U.S. was 43 years old. Most bridges are designed to last 50 years.

The ASCE explains, “While not unsafe, structurally deficient bridges are those that require significant maintenance, rehabilitation, or replacement of load-carrying elements.”

In order to protect these structures from deteriorating further, weight limits are often posted. While these rules often have no impact on cars and small trucks, they do restrict or prevent heavier traffic, including semis and farm equipment. These posted bridges can significantly increase driving time for large vehicles by forcing them to take a less direct route. This can be especially problematic for emergency response vehicles.

Many key agricultural states have poor bridge conditions. Iowa has more structurally deficient bridges than any other state. In total, 4,968 (more than 20%) of the state’s bridges are considered structurally deficient. A 2015 ASCE report card notes 98% of Iowa’s structurally deficient bridges are part of county or city roads.

Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Nebraska round out the top five states with the highest number of these potentially dangerous bridges.

In recent years, funding for bridges has increased at all levels of government but is still insufficient. A recent federal estimate says the backlog of bridge projects is $123 billion.

Dave Mulholland is an engineer for the Iowa Department of Transportation. In a 2015 report, he explains work is being done to find technology and other ways to build bridges more quickly so that the state can start making progress on the backlog.

Roads

Finally, the ugly. In the same report, ASCE says U.S. roads earned a D grade. The group says 1 out of every 5 miles of highway pavement is in poor condition. Like bridges, many roads built before the 1960s are reaching the end of their design life. While they may not be dangerous yet, many roads are in need of costly repairs or replacement. As of  the 2017 ASCE report, the backlog of highway repairs totaled $420 billion.

WEF ranks the U.S. roadways as 10th in quality worldwide. 

At the same time, the major means of travel and commerce in many Midwest and Western states are highways.

On top of a federal tax, a state fuel tax is set by each state. This money is used to fund road projects. Brianne Glover, associate research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, points out this as a problem.

“In most states, fuel taxes are on a cent-per-gallon tax basis, so as cars are getting more fuel-efficient, drivers are paying less gas tax to go the same distance,” she says. These vehicles are covering more miles and causing more wear and tear on the roads without paying more.

On top of that, there is often public pushback to raising fuel taxes. In Missouri, the rate has remained the same for more than 20 years. Over time, the 17¢ per gallon  tax has less and less purchasing power.

Glover’s former colleague, Ellis, predicts a funding shift. A vehicle mileage fee could replace a gas tax. One option called OReGO is already being implemented in Oregon. The program’s website says OReGO was developed to be a fair, reliable source of revenue to fund transportation projects. Instead of paying tax by the gallon, drivers pay taxes on the miles they drive as logged by a device that plugs into the car itself.

In addition to funding challenges, U.S. roads have congestion problems. Waiting in traffic slows down the transport of agricultural goods, costing players in the industry time and money. 

Ellis points out that due to technology, however, Americans are able to telecommute, shop online, and stream entertainment. Each of these innovations can reduce or eliminate the need for car trips. As a result, there is less roadway congestion that slows the transportation of goods. Ellis says time will tell what long-term impacts these advancements will have on the country’s future road infrastructure needs.

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