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Gathering raises ideas for ways to fund infrastructure

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Infrastructure across the United States is starting to fail – the locks and dams system is almost 70 years old, bridges and highways have an average “C” rating and rural America is getting left behind in internet connectivity.

The Farm Foundation and the USDA Economics Research Service sponsored a conference earlier this month, “Economic Returns to Rural Infrastructure Investment.” The two-day meeting highlighted different methods used to fund projects, and the infrastructure needs across the country that are becoming more critical each year.

David Albouy with the University of Illinois researched, wrote and presented a paper called The Value of Rural and Urban Public Infrastructure. He tried to determine the value of infrastructure, and determined people are willing to be paid less if the infrastructure in a community has high standards.

When looking at the return of a $1 investment, rural communities seemed to average about a $1.60 return, while urban communities saw a $2.20 return. He said many people don’t want to live in rural areas because they don’t think they have the right amenities, but many small downtowns are developing more infrastructure and businesses, creating an urban environment in a rural setting.

If money is invested in these downtowns, young people might return to the communities. While many people seem to leave rural communities in their twenties, many are also interested in returning to their hometowns when they’re in their thirties.

Mark Partridge with The Ohio State University said the paper showed there are areas where investments could really change a place, but other areas where the investment wouldn’t make a difference. In some communities, access to certain amenities aren’t wanted – such as a commuter train station in a rural town. If the people in the area don’t want the amenity, it will not improve the quality of life, he explained.

When grants and loans were first made available to provide broadband in rural communities, the impact on them was noticeable – but more in communities where the service was used, not just where it became accessible, said Brian Whitacre with Oklahoma State University.

Garry Niemeyer, representing the Waterways Council, and Jon Samson with the American Trucking Assoc. said the infrastructure on the roads and waterways of the country needs to be improved now, but the costs have caused the government to put off large-scale projects.

Putting all the fees on commercial traffic seems unjust, they said, especially when recreational vehicles benefit from the locks and dams systems. Communities receive water from the system and tourist money from people visiting the area for recreational use as a result of a nearby lake caused by a dam, for example – but commercial traffic such as barges are the only ones paying user fees and it is not enough to maintain the system, at an estimated cost of $8.8 billion nationally.

The lock and dam system has been overlooked by the government for years, but in 2020, 78 percent of the locks will have exceeded their lifespan, Niemeyer said. He suggests finding ways to get additional revenue, like charging recreational users or taxing hydropower generation revenue.

Samson said U.S. roads face a similar problem. Most repairs were funded until 2008 by gasoline taxes, but people traveling less and an increase in electric vehicles means the money available has decreased. Some funding is being moved from other government programs to pay for repairs – but that isn’t money that can be counted on from year to year.

Everything from increasing taxes on gasoline or barrels of oil to expanding the toll system has been discussed, Samson said, but there is no easy answer.

Constance Cullman, president of Farm Foundation, said, “For years, infrastructure was something important that we'd ‘get to.’ It’s heartening to see all the different groups working together to get something done today.”

Steve Censky, deputy secretary at the USDA, said 56,000 bridges in the United States are structurally deficient. About 80 percent of those are in rural America.

“Whenever a weight restriction is added to a bridge, produce needs to be shipped a different way, often miles around,” he pointed out. The ability to move products around the county and export those products is what helped build this into the country it is today, he added.