Rural dirt roads were turned to gravel half a century ago in Washington County to help get people out of the mud, but 50 or 60 years later these same roads and bridges don’t meet modern needs, said county engineer Jacob Thorius.
Farms are bigger. Equipment is bigger. The vehicles traveling on these road are much heavier, and the infrastructure hasn’t held up to the added wear and tear, he said.
“Farmers are feeding the world, which is great, but our roads aren’t helping,” Thorius said.
About 40 bridges have weight restrictions, and about 10 have been closed, meaning transportation sometimes can be diverted miles out of the way, Thorius said.
The story in Washington County, where 20.5 percent of bridges are rated by federal standards as structurally deficient, is much the same across Iowa and the heartland, and some fear it could get worse because of questions about federal funding.
With 22 percent structurally deficient rural bridges, Iowa has the third highest percentage in the nation, according to a new report released this month by Washington, D.C.-based National Transportation Research Group (TRIP). Pennsylvania and Rhode Island are the only states with a higher percentage.
The state of rural roads and bridges in the Midwest, and the obstacles they present to economic growth, is the focus of the report called “Rural Connections: Challenges and Opportunities in America’s Heartland.” The growth of agriculture, energy extraction and renewable energy industries have increased the stress on the rural system, according to the report.
It found that 13 percent of rural roads in Iowa were rated in poor condition. Iowa’s rate of traffic deaths on rural roads, 1.82 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, is three times the rate on all other roads in Iowa, according to the report.
Meanwhile, large truck use of major, non-arterial rural roads in the U.S. increased 16 percent between 2000 and 2012.
The report claims issues with connectivity, safety, and conditions affect quality of life for the 46 million Americans who live in rural areas. Meanwhile, weight restrictions and closures on roads and bridges have complicated transactions for farmers and distributors as well as tourists.
“What we are seeing across the country is transportation agencies are really falling behind and they are not having resources to make these repairs,” said Rocky Moretti, director of policy and research for TRIP. “It is critical to states economically and people’s daily lives.”
The TRIP report recommends modernizing key roads, upgrading safety, improving public transit access to rural areas and increasing funding to meet needs of upkeep on the rural system.
The issue in Washington County, and many others is money.
The report lays some of the blame at the feet of Congress. It estimates Iowa could lose $478 million in road and transit funding if Congress doesn’t address the dwindling Highway Trust Fund. That could put rural areas further behind.
Washington County has turned to property tax-backed bonds to pay for critical road needs and is one of 26 counties in Iowa that have taken that approach. Those counties have passed $163 million in bonds to cover road needs, said Matt Steinfeldt, state policy adviser for Iowa Farm Bureau. It’s not ideal, he said.
“Instead of being a pay-as-you-go system, Iowa communities are going into debt and property taxes are paying for it,” Steinfeldt said.
Farm Bureau members are advocating for a gas tax increase, which will help address the estimated $215 million annual gap in critical road needs, he said. The gas tax hasn’t been increased.
In Iowa, about 32.5 percent of the primary road fund is divided among Iowa’s 99 counties. In part due to more fuel-efficient vehicles, gas tax revenue, which hasn’t been increased since 1989, can’t cover the needs.
Norm MacDonald, state bridge engineer with Iowa Department of Transportation, said Iowa’s limited tax base makes it difficult to stay on top of the 13th largest road network in the nation, and at the county level there’s tough choices about which needs to address.
“They can’t replace as many bridges as they’d like to,” MacDonald said. “They are working on ones with paved routes and higher traffic, and pick and choose between the ones with lower traffic.”