The More the Merrier

By Rachel Peabody

the more the merrierInfrastructure needs maintenance. Illinois farmers know this well, especially when looking at the condition of bridges statewide. So, to make more improvements while maximizing available dollars, the Illinois Soybean Association (ISA) checkoff program is engaged in a “bridge bundling” effort with other state stakeholders. The intent is to contract multiple state bridge repairs together as a package versus issuing single contracts to pay for single bridge repairs.

In this issue of Soy Perspectives, we catch up with Scott Sigman, transportation expert, to discuss how bridge bundling impacts Illinois soybean farmers.

SP: Please explain bridge bundling to our readers.

SS: Bridge bundling is an effort the ISA checkoff program has been working on for several years. Historically, each bridge was designed, contracted, built and maintained individually. Now with so many bridges across the state, county, township and federal jurisdictions that all need repair, it made sense to see what other states were doing.

Missouri is an example of a state that has been successful. Coordinators bring multiple bridge assets together under a single contract and do one bid process for a collection of bridges. This saves money in administrative costs, manpower, equipment and materials. It is a cost savings approach to infrastructure repairs that ISA has recognized as a good alternative funding and financing approach that would be possible to apply in Illinois.

SP: What is the current state of Illinois’ bridge infrastructure?

SS: There are around 26,000 bridges across the 102 counties in Illinois. Of that, 4,000 are projected in need of repair and rehabilitation. As you get down to the county and township level, there are some areas with substantial numbers that are structurally deficient or not up to code.

MO success storySP: Why are bridges a critical component of agriculture’s infrastructure?

SS: The bridge is the pinch point for the farmer with infrastructure concerns. If you have a stretch of roadway but you can’t cross the river or creek, you might have to go way out of route to get to the terminal, bin or elevator. Farmers need the most efficient way possible to move grain to the end point of sale. Structurally deficient bridges, or bridges that are out of date from modern standards, are obsolete. We need bridges to be the connector for farmers.

SP: What does a bridge mean to a farmer’s bottom line?

SS: An ISA study found that a properly functioning bridge can add up to 10 cents per bushel if the farmer has an efficient route to travel. A bridge really makes a difference on average length of haul, and ultimately profitability for the farmer. Over large acreage areas, that really adds up.

SP: What goes into planning a rural roadwork project?

SS: A big part of county road work is planning and sequencing about how to get the job done. Engineers have to consider many variables – like the approach of the bridge, if there’s a crest at the center needed for drainage, if there’s road grading that’s needed, if there are bumps or holes that could impact traffic and safety, or even how close it’s located to rail tracks, intersections or traffic signals. Each bridge project has its own unique variables that require planning. County boards generally have transportation subcommittees that rely on input from townships, state and even federal groups at times to ensure the right groups are involved and how to prioritize the project relative to other infrastructure needs that exist.

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SP: Who is helping advance the bridge bundling effort in Illinois?

SS: The Illinois ag groups are engaged and participating in a working group on this, namely ISA along with Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Corn Marketing Board. We want to serve as a catalyst to enable bridge bundling to begin in Illinois. We know that the ag community will benefit from multiple jurisdictions being able to work together more easily to get bridge projects funded and started. We have also been meeting with the Illinois Department of Transportation staff, county engineers, township road commissioners and various community groups related to Rebuild Illinois work. Rebuild Illinois is a capital plan that has earmarked $45 billion for state infrastructure investments - including roads, bridges and railroads (see page X).

SP: Why is infrastructure so critical to the soybean farmer?

SS: I have always said that soybeans aren’t worth anything when they remain on the farm. They have to be delivered in a timely fashion for the farmer to get paid. Efficiency is necessary to be competitive. Logistics operations and transportation infrastructure get soybeans from the farm to end customer. And bridge bundling is just part of that supply chain that starts with the producer.