By TIM ALEXANDER
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — The combined benefits of refurbishment to 12 Illinois bridges central to the movement of soybean products could equal an average of $10.24 for each $1 invested, according to the recent Illinois Critical Bridge Assessment and Economic Impact Relative to Soybean and Soybean Product Movements report, funded by Illinois soybean checkoff funds.
The study concluded that 12 neglected bridges in crop reporting districts Adams, Bureau, Clinton, DeKalb, Iroquois, McLean, Macoupin, Shelby and Wayne counties – as well as Peoria because of its proximity to river staging and grain orientation – are eroding the state’s global economic advantages.
The bridges were analyzed by Informa Economics, based on the economic stimulus provided to area businesses and citizens by comparing the costs that would be incurred if the bridges were decommissioned as opposed to making necessary repairs or upgrades.
“Evaluating critical bridges as they relate to the soy complex is important because (bridges) are the pinch points. We wanted to find out if the potentially weakest links were something to be concerned about, or if the state was doing everything it could with the scarce resources it has,” said Scott Sigman, transportation and infrastructure lead for the Illinois Soybean Assoc. (ISA), which commissioned the study.
“Informa utilized a computer program to identify bridge locations that were most deficient, based on a state and federal compendium of bridge rankings based on sufficiency for traffic. Part of our mission was to identify and qualify the economic benefit for what the infrastructure investment might return to the community at large.”
More than 15 percent of Illinois bridges are classified as deficient by the Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Index. Many are located in rural, cash-strapped townships and municipalities that may not have ready access to funding for bridge rehabilitation.
“Smaller-populated rural communities face bigger challenges and often can’t (use) a general fund,” said Sigman. “In talking with county engineers, the findings were that sometimes, the bridges in need of repair are on a tight budget and a relatively long-term plan.”
A portion of the solution to the problem of Illinois’ bridge infrastructure dilemma could be solved by updating the state’s bridge fund, which was established decades ago with a statewide limit of $15 million per fiscal year.
“The bridge fund has never been adjusted for inflation. You can’t do much with that in 2012,” said Sigman.
Many of the state’s rural bridges can no longer accommodate the heavy loads of modern farm machinery and semi trucks, noted Mike Marron, ISA assistant secretary and treasurer, who farms in Fithian. “Rural roads and bridges are the backbone of our agricultural economy,” Marron said.
The ISA held a press conference to announce the study’s findings at Stockland Grain Co. in Stockland, where a bridge over Sugar Creek connects the company’s grain receiving and storage area to its rail load-out facility. The study showed repairs to the bridge would yield a 20:1 economic return to the community within only a couple of years. Area legislators, stakeholders and township officials attended the event.
“The legislature is getting the word, and (ISA) members are increasingly aware of the study’s findings. It is getting traction and we are encouraged,” said Sigman.
The study was part of the ISA’s 2011-12 fiscal year research program. Other aspects of transportation of soybeans from the farm to point-of-sale, including rail, water and roadways, will be examined as part of the organizations’ 2012-13 research efforts, according to Sigman.