Commentary: Infrastructure links ag commodities to markets

Much of early agricultural policy was what is known as developmental policy. One element of developmental policies was public actions that lowered the cost of inputs, such as in transportation. While the Erie Canal was built for more than agricul...


Much of early agricultural policy was what is known as developmental policy. 

One element of developmental policies was public actions that lowered the cost of inputs, such as in transportation.
While the Erie Canal was built for more than agriculture, it had a direct impact on farms that developed along the Great Lakes. With the opening of the canal, farmers could afford to ship their products into the lucrative New York City market. Soon, we saw the digging of the Ohio and Erie Canal, the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal and the Miami and Erie Canal - among others - with public support.
With the Civil War raging, Congress adopted plans to link the states of the east with California, opening up vast agricultural lands with easy access to eastern markets.
In the early 20th century, we saw the development of the U.S. highway system that converted muddy tracks to paved roads that were later linked to farms with the construction of farm-to-market roads, reducing the cost of delivering agricultural products to consumers.
This history of a century-and-a-half of investment in transportation infrastructure came to mind when we read a recent Associated Press article by Scott McFetridge, in which he described the problems with rural roads and bridges across the U.S.
Bridge decay is a serious issue in urban and rural areas, but with less traffic, rural bridges are less likely to rank highly on the project lists of state and county highway departments.
McFetridge writes of the impact of bridge closures on a farm family.
Duane Ohnemus and his wife, Mary Jo, raise cattle, corn and soybeans on 1,500 acres their family has owned for more than a century. But they are having trouble just getting around their land because of the closure of one bridge and load limits on others. 
“Ohnemus must take a 4-mile detour to check on cattle or take equipment to his crops. And since the bridge closed, the remaining dirt road has not been maintained. The weight limits mean he’s tempting fate whenever he rumbles across other bridges in his three-quarter-ton pickup. When moving his tractor or combine, he has to choose routes carefully.”
A search of articles about rural bridge closures points to problems in places coast to coast, from Washington through Nebraska and New York to Maine and south to Louisiana. Tight budgets are creating a backlog of work on roads and bridges.
A spreadsheet of deficient bridges compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation shows 145,890 of the country’s 610,749 bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
According to National Bridges, structurally deficient describes a bridge that has “one or more structural defects that require attention.” This status does not indicate the severity of the defect, but that “a defect is present.”
Functionally obsolete describes a bridge “no longer by design functionally adequate for its task.” Reasons for this status might be the bridge doesn’t have enough lanes to accommodate the traffic flow, or a drawbridge on a congested highway, or it might not have space for emergency shoulders.
Of the 145,890 bridges that are in one of these two categories, 30,049 are a part of the national highway system that “includes the Interstates and roads important to the nation’s “economy, defense, and mobility.”
That leaves out most rural bridges and some urban bridges that are the responsibility of municipalities.
While farmers have other things to be concerned about, such as low crop prices, the condition of their bridges ought to be on their radar.
While we are experiencing a political climate in which many are trying to shrink governmental budgets, ignoring the cost of maintaining and upgrading the country’ roads and bridges, including those in rural areas, may end up being costly in the long run. 
One of the advantages farmers have in getting their products to international markets is a superior infrastructure: railroads, waterways, and rural roads and bridges. It would be a shame to allow roads and bridges to fall into disrepair, increasing the cost farmers have to bear in getting their products to market.
Editor’s note: Schaffer is a research assistant professor in the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center at the University of Tennessee. Ray is the former director of APAC.

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