A rural bridge

The Soy Transportation Coalition recently issued a guide for engineers to consider lowest cost solutions to bridge repair. Iowa has some of the most structurally-deficient bridges in the nation, a recent report showed. (Photo: Iowa Soybean Association)

STC sheds light on infrastructure opportunities

May 20, 2021 | Bethany Baratta

Transportation infrastructure has made national headlines in recent months, and that hasn’t been due to announcements related to strengthening U.S. infrastructure.

Quite the opposite.

A lodged ship in the Suez Canal blocked traffic for six days. Though outside of U.S. jurisdiction, it affected traffic flowing to and from the United States. The canal accounts for about 2.5% of global soybean export traffic.

The American Road and Transportation Builders Association recently released its annual Bridge Conditions Report, showing that 45,023 bridges in the United States are rated as “structurally deficient,” 7.3% of the nation’s total bridge inventory. While the “structurally deficient” rating doesn’t mean the bridge is unsafe or in danger of collapse, it means those bridges have one or more components that require repair.

Iowa ranked No. 1 — or worst —in the number of structurally deficient bridges. According to the report, 4,571 of Iowa’s 23,982 bridges are structurally deficient. West Virginia topped the list in the percentage of structurally deficient bridges.

Earlier this month Colonial Pipeline, a pipeline originating in Houston, Texas, and carrying gasoline and jet fuel suffered a ransomware cyberattack. The pipeline’s operations were halted, and Colonial Pipeline paid the requested ransom — nearly $5 million — to restore their system.

The recent closure of the Hernando de Soto bridge — also referred to the I-40 bridge — due to a large fracture in a support beam not only closed the bridge but closed the passage underneath to barge traffic for three days.

At one point, the Coast Guard noted that 62 vessels with 1,058 barges with a mix of goods and commodities (including soybeans) were delayed due to the suspension of barge traffic under the I-40 bridge.

These instances of a weakened supply chain ought to send a signal to national leadership about the need to prioritize transportation infrastructure, said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition (STC).

“No one would wish a catastrophe or hope for this current situation with the I-40 bridge, but may the silver lining be that we actually get something done on infrastructure that addresses our needs of both urban and rural America,” Steenhoek said.

An effective game plan surrounding infrastructure should consider rural bridges, rural roads, the inland waterway system, freights, and ports.

“Some of the things unique about farmers and agriculture is we really utilize those major modes of transportation,” Steenhoek said. “It’s hard to prioritize one mode over another because each one hands the baton over to another.”

He likens the supply chain like a steel chain: “It doesn’t do a whole lot of good if each link in your supply chain is made from stainless steel and one is a twisty tie. You have to make sure each one is properly maintained and properly invested in.”

Steenhoek said the seismic shift in consumer spending over the past 12-15 months from services (restaurants, travel, entertainment, etc.) to goods has imposed historic demand on manufacturing and production and the supply chain that accommodates them. Every link (ports, railroads, trucking, maritime shipping, etc.) in the supply chain is under stress. 

“When a link in the supply chain — barge, in this case — experiences a shut down or delay within the context of overly subscribed transportation network, challenges can easily compound — adding insult to injury,” he said.

The supply chain is critical to farmers like Warren Bachman, who grows soybeans and corn with his son near Osceola.

“We’ve got to get our crops to market wherever the customer is — worldwide or local. If we don’t have adequate roads, bridges, locks and dams or railroads, it costs us money. The better the infrastructure, the more options we have for the different markets,” said Bachman, a District 8 director for the Iowa Soybean Association and member of the Soy Transportation Coalition board.

With years of experience in the trucking industry, Bachman has seen firsthand the weakening of Iowa’s transportation infrastructure.

“Iowa used to have some of the best roads in the nation. I would guess we’ve slipped a long way from where we were 30 years ago,” he said.

Funding and prioritization of transportation infrastructure ensures support of America’s supply chain and adaptation to heavier, bigger, wider equipment and loads on the rails, roads, and waterway systems, he said.

Stretching dollars

The Soy Transportation Coalition understands the needs for greater investment in infrastructure, but Steenhoek said the board is realistic.

“We don’t think the government will ever be able to write a big enough check to fully replenish this system, so we have to find ways to make taxpayer dollars stretch further and look for ways for counties and local government to get more bang for their buck,” Steenhoek said.

One example is the “Top 20 Innovations for Rural Bridge Replacement and Repair”, a guide created by 13 bridge engineers and experts from the 13 states that comprise the organization. This guide shows innovative concepts for bridge repair or replacement that are cost effective.

It’s a guide that Bachman is presenting to his county engineers after realizing firsthand the limiting load capacity on a bridge within his farm-to-market route.

“We’ve got a bridge that I used to cross all the time with a semi that’s now rated a 12-ton limit,” Bachman said. “Now we drive an additional 5 to 7 miles to avoid that bridge.”

Seeing the need to accommodate larger shipments through a main soybean-shipping channel, the soybean checkoff invested $2 million through the United Soybean Board to research design opportunities along the lower Mississippi River. A study commissioned by the STC illustrated the benefits to farmers of deepening the 256-mile stretch of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to the Gulf of Mexico. This area accounts for 60% of U.S. soybean exports and 59% of U.S. corn exports, the leading export region for both commodities.

STC continues to work with soy organizations to promote soy-based concreate and asphalt sealants. Steenhoek said soy-based products provide a new marketing opportunity for U.S. soybean farmers while also demonstrating better stewardship of U.S. roads and bridges by elongating the lifespan of these essential supply chain links. The products are also environmentally sustainable.

Following farmers’ examples

When facing infrastructure challenges, STC continues to follow the example set by its farmers leaders, Steenhoek said.

“When farmers encounter some sort of challenge or dilemma on their farm, farmers don’t have the knee-jerk reaction of getting out their credit card and just spending their way out of the problem. They look at how they can be creative and innovative and save their way out of the problem without spending money,” Steenhoek said. “If that mentality works so well on the farm, it should work well in improving and maintaining our infrastructure.”