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I’ve got an old mule and her name is Sal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
She’s a good old worker and a good old pal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
When we learned that song in grade school, we had no idea that it that it was talking about early agricultural policy in the U.S. It was just fun to sing.
It turns out that much of early agricultural policy was what is known as developmental policy. One element of those developmental policies was public actions that lowered the cost of inputs (the materials and activities required to produce a product). In this case, the input was transportation.
While the Erie Canal was built for more than agriculture, it had a direct impact on farms that had 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, the U.S. 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 well-paved roads. These roads were later linked to farms with the construction of farm-to-market roads, reducing the cost of delivering agricultural products to various 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.. In both rural and urban areas, the issue of bridge decay is serious. But with less traffic, rural bridges are less likely to rank high on the project lists of state and county highway departments.
“There’s only so much money, so you need to prioritize,” engineer David Carroll of Warrant County, Iowa, told the AP. “We’re living off our grandparents and great-grandparents right now.”
The AP reports that Warren County, which lies just south of Des Moines, has closed 20 bridges so far.
McFetridge tells the story of the impact of one of these 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 small 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.
“They need to come up with some sort of alternative,’ Ohnemus said. “You can’t hardly run a business.”
An online search of news articles about rural bridge closures points to problems in places from coast to coast, from Washington state through Nebraska and New York to Maine and then south to Louisiana. Tight budgets are creating a backlog of work on roads and bridges.
An examination of a spreadsheet of deficient bridges compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) shows that 145,890 of the country’s 610,749 bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. That doesn’t mean the bridges are unsafe. It just means they can no longer meet the demands that today’s traffic puts on them. They may not be designed to carry enough traffic or don’t have features that have become required, like emergency lanes. They create traffic snarls or lack features that are party of today’s minimum standards.
Of the 145,890 bridges that are either functionally obsolete or structurally deficient, 30,049 are a part of the national highway system which includes the interstate system and “other roads important to the nation’s economy, defense, and mobility.” Much of the rest, more than 115,000 bridges, are in rural areas, though some are the responsibility of municipalities.
While farmers currently have other things to be concerned about like low crop prices, the condition of their bridges ought to be on their radar. While we are currently experiencing a political climate in which many are trying to shrink governmental budgets, ignoring the cost of maintaining and upgrading the country’s roads and bridges, including those in rural areas, may end up being costly in the long run.
One of the advantages that U.S. farmers have in getting their products to international markets is a superior infrastructure, including railroads, waterways, and rural roads and bridges. It would be a shame to allow a system of roads and bridges built by our grandparents and great-grandparents to fall into disrepair, increasing the cost that farmers have to bear in getting their products to market.
Harwood D. Schaffer is a research assistant professor in the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee. Daryll E. Ray is emeritus professor at the institute and former director of the center.