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Mike Steenhoek: After COVID-19 federal government should invest in infrastructure

Article cover photo
Mike Steenhoek believes infrastructure investment will be regarded as one of the best opportunities to enhance the long term wellness of agriculture and the broader economy. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

Comments by Mike Steenhoek

Executive Director, Soy Transportation Coalition

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has rightly focused its attention on emergency measures to mitigate the immediate harm to our society and the broader economy. 

In the weeks and months to come, our time, energy, and resources will need to transition from triage and stabilization to long term wellness.  As we do so, it is my hope that infrastructure investment will be regarded as one of the best opportunities to enhance the long term wellness of agriculture and the broader economy.  Appropriately, a significant percentage of the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been designed to provide quickly accessible resources to address sudden and unexpected needs.  The goal, in short, has been to allocate immediate resources for immediate needs. 

Infrastructure investment, in contrast, is designed to allocate immediate resources in exchange for future benefit.  The profitability of our nation’s farmers, small businesses, manufacturers, and others can be significantly impeded or facilitated based on the condition of our multi-modal transportation system.  In addition to the job-creating and maintaining the impact of constructing roads, bridges, locks, ports, and other infrastructure projects, having a well-maintained and capitalized transportation system is one of the best ways the federal government can advertise how “the United States is the best place to do business” – a message we will want to adamantly convey as we recover from these challenging times.

Two important pieces of legislation – a surface transportation bill (commonly referred to as a “highway bill”) and a Water Resources Development Act (addressing the needs of the inland waterway system) – were already agenda items for Congress and the Trump Administration this year prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.  Our federal leaders would be wise to complete and pass both either independently or in combination with larger legislative items in 2020.  The COVID-19 pandemic should create a greater commitment to investing in our infrastructure, rather than an excuse to postpone it. 

The transportation needs of agriculture and the broader economy are significant and extensive.  A few examples of opportunities to improve the supply chain that farmers and agriculture rely upon include:

Locks and Dams

Investing in operations and maintenance, major rehabilitation, and new construction of locks and dams along our nation’s inland waterway system is essential.  Many lock and dam sites have been allowed to degrade and require significant investment.  A 15 barge tow originating in Minneapolis/St. Paul and arriving in St. Louis will need to transit 27 locks – 24 of which provide a single 600 ft. long by 110 ft. wide lock chamber.  Three provide the opportunity to transit a 1,200 ft. long by 110 ft. wide chamber.  To transit a 600 ft. long chamber, a 15 barge tow must break into two segments.  A 1,200 ft. long lock and allow a 15 barge tow to do a single transit without needing to separate.  It only requires 45 minutes for a 15 barge tow to transit a 1,200 ft. lock, but 1 ½ - 2 hours to transit a 600 ft. lock via two segments.  If all 27 locks between Minneapolis/St. Paul provided a 1,200 ft. chamber, the total time to transit the locks be 20 hours and 15 minutes (45 minutes X 27 locks).  The current route with 24 of the 27 locks having 600 ft. long chambers involves 38-51 hours to transit the actual locks.  Each additional hour results in additional expense. 

Rural Bridges

According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, there are over 47,000 structurally deficient bridges in the United States – most of which are located in rural areas.  As the modest example below highlights, repairing and replacing rural bridges can provide significant economic benefits. 

Example: Three rural bridges have weight restrictions preventing soybeans, grain, or other freight transported by semis to cross.  Let’s assume this restriction at each bridge results in a five-mile detour for any given semi.

  • Bridge #1: On average, 6 trucks were impacted each day and are therefore subject to the detour
    • 30 miles of detour are incurred each day (6 trucks X 5 miles)
    • 10,950 miles of detour are incurred each year (30 miles X 365 days)
    • $13,688 annual cost of the detour to affected constituents (10,950 miles X $1.25 cost per mile)
  • Bridge #2: On average, 13 trucks are impacted each day
    • 65 miles of detour are incurred each day (13 trucks X 5 miles)
    • 23,725 miles of detour are incurred each year (65 miles X 365 days)
    • $29,656 annual cost of the detour to affected constituents (23,725 miles X $1.25 cost per mil
  • Bridge #3: On average, 25 trucks are impacted each day
    • 125 miles of detour are incurred each day (25 trucks X 5 miles)
    • 45,625 miles of detour are incurred each year (125 miles X 365 days)
    • $57,031 annual cost of the detour to affected constituents (45,625 miles X $1.25 cost per mile)

Therefore, $13,688 (Bridge #1) + $29,656 (Bridge #2) + $57,031 (Bridge #3) = $100,375 annual savings to local taxpayers if the above bridges are repaired or replaced. 

Allowing six-axle, 91,000 lbs. semis on the interstate system

The Soy Transportation Coalition and other agricultural stakeholders continue to promote the allowance on federal interstates and state roads of six axle, 91,000 lbs. semis – an increase from the five axle, 80,000 lbs. limit that persists in many areas of the country.  Research by the Soy Transportation Coalition and other organizations consistently highlights that doing so will result in greater motorist safety, decreased infrastructure wear and tear, and greater cost savings and efficiency gains for farmers and other shippers.    

Example: A grain elevator annually handles 6 million bushels (4 million bushels of corn + 2 million bushels of soybeans)

  • Utilizing 80,000 lbs. semis, the grain elevator would require 4,149 trips for corn and 2,222 trips for soybeans.  Total trips = 6,371.  If the delivery location for the grain handler is 25 miles or 50 miles roundtrip, 318,550 miles would be driven. 
  • Utilizing 6 axle, 91,000 lbs. semis, the grain elevator would require 3,613 trips for corn and 1,934 trips for soybeans.  Total trips = 5,547.  If the delivery location for the grain handler is 25 miles or 50 miles roundtrip, 277,350 miles would be driven. 

Therefore, a single elevator handling the same number of bushels would annually have to incur 824 additional trips – driving 41,200 additional miles – relying on 80,000 lbs. semis compared to 91,000 lbs. semis.  41,200 miles X $1.25 per mile = $51,500 in additional transportation expenses annually.

*80,000 lbs. semi: 900 bushels of soybeans per load; 964 bushels of corn per load

*91,000 lbs. semi: 1,034 bushels of soybeans per load; 1,107 bushels of corn per load

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