C magazine

Broken bridges

Bridge with a bridge closed sign

Sep 18, 2019

Deteriorating roads and bridges are causing delays and safety concerns.

Trucks, cars and buses cross structurally deficient bridges 178 million times every day, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) reports. The need for updates is strongest in rural America, where 80 percent of the nation’s 47,000 deficient bridges are located, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

As more trucks hit the road to handle increased demand for speedy delivery of all types of products and U.S. waterways and railroads battle weather-related slowdowns, deteriorating bridges and roadways are much more than a minor inconvenience. The American Transportation Research Institute estimates traffic congestion cost the U.S. trucking industry $74.5 billion in 2016. Without investment in this segment of America’s infrastructure, costs and delays will only increase.

“Agricultural supply chains depend on truck transportation, given the remoteness of rural source points for grain and destination points for crop inputs,” says Patrick Hessini, vice president, CHS Transportation and Distribution.

Number of U.S. freight shipments by transportation mode graph

“Maintaining our nation’s road and bridge system is crucial to the country’s economic growth. Without trucks, many goods would never reach their destinations.”

In fact, trucks carry about 75 percent of the nation’s agricultural, food, forest, alcohol and fertilizer products by weight, according to the USDA.

“When issues arise for other transportation modes, such as barge delays due to lock closures or rail shutdowns in extreme winter conditions, agriculture and rural America depend even more on truck transportation,” says Hessini. “And trucking offers necessary flexibility during planting and harvest seasons.”

$74.5 BILLION 
the impact of congestion on
the U.S. trucking industry

Source: Federal Highway Administration

“We don’t have access to rail, so we rely on trucks for all our products,” says Don Brown, agronomy manager at Lac Qui Parle Co-op Oil based in Dawson, Minn., about 20 miles from the Minnesota–South Dakota border.

“We deliver 15,000 tons of fertilizer to 320 farms within a 35-mile radius of our location each year. Some of the area’s bridges are 50 to 60 years old. If they aren’t replaced soon, they’re going to create problems for farmers trying to truck in grain.”

Funding Gaps

Despite the growing number of deficient bridges and poor road conditions, the pace of bridge repair in 2018 was the slowest in the last five years. Only 1 percent of deficient structures were addressed, according to ARTBA. Insufficient funding is a key contributor to slow progress.

Number of U.S. bridges needing repair graph

Funding for roads, bridges and transit is primarily generated by general fund appropriations, fuel taxes and vehicle taxes and fees. “Since 2013, 30 states have increased gas tax rates,” says Jake Hamlin, director of state government affairs, CHS Government Affairs. While gas taxes have been a primary source for infrastructure maintenance, the funding pool is shrinking due to declining gasoline demand as vehicles become more fuel-efficient and electric vehicles become more affordable, says Hamlin.

As states and counties look for alternative funding sources, many have increased vehicle taxes, registration fees and diesel taxes. Diesel is taxed at a higher rate than gasoline. As of April, the national average tax rate for diesel was 60 cents per gallon, compared to 53 cents per gallon for gasoline. Building demand for diesel to power more over-the-road trucks is helping to fill the funding gap but puts a greater burden on ag and other commodity-focused industries.

of bridges are 50+ years old
Source: Federal Highway Administration

Heavy reliance on taxes of any kind creates significant challenges for rural communities,where populations are decreasing as more people move to urban centers, says Hamlin. Local governments maintain about 77 percent of roadway miles, while state highway agencies are responsible for about 19 percent of the miles and the federal government owns about 4 percent, according to ARTBA.

Federal funding for bridges and roadways is also a concern. The federal government’s Highway Trust Fund is a major source of funding for highway and bridge investments made by state and local governments. Revenues from the trust fund are primarily derived from federal gasoline and diesel taxes. In recent years, the trust fund has needed significant transfers from the general fund to remain solvent. The last of these transfers was authorized in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which funds federal surface transportation programs through fiscal year 2020.

1,100 MILES 
of structurally deficient bridges
Source: American Road & Transportation Builders Association

“Congress has yet to decide whether to reauthorize or extend FAST and how to replenish the trust fund, but there has been ongoing bipartisan discussion about additional federal funding for all infrastructure, including roads and bridges,” says John Engelen, vice president, CHS Government Affairs.

Right Spend

“Safe roadways and a robust rural transportation network are essential to sustain farming and cooperative operations,” says Hessini. “That’s why CHS advocates for rural infrastructure investments by working with federal, state and local government representatives, along with state departments of transportation and other local transportation stakeholders.”

“In addition to influencing policies, we help ensure transportation funds are used appropriately,” adds Englen. “Sufficient funding for roadways is not only crucial for rural communities but the entire agricultural supply chain. We encourage owners to talk with elected officials about the impact deteriorating roads and bridges have on farms and businesses and the importance of developing a sustainable source of funding for the system."