Rural infrastructure has been in need of major rehabilitation for years and there are real concerns that the coronavirus pandemic could make the situation even worse. The sharp drop-off in travel alone is expected to rip a hole in state and local transportation revenues, in turn likely adding even more projects to the backlog already waiting for much-needed repairs.

A recent report TRIP, a nonprofit transportation research group, showed that a combined 34% of rural roads are in “poor” or “mediocre” condition.  For rural bridges, 8% were rated “poor” while 47% were rated “fair”. Understand that “fair” means the bridge is structurally sound but already has some deterioration. Obviously, without needed repairs, the percentage of transportation infrastructure rated poor and/or structurally deficient will continue to climb.

TRIP cites a report to Congress submitted by the U.S. Transportation Department in 2019 that showed the nation’s rural roads, highways, and bridges face a $211 billion backlog in needed repairs and improvements. Additionally, it found the nation’s annual $28 billion investment by all levels of government in rural road, highway, and bridge rehabilitation and enhancements should be increased by +28%, to approximately $36 billion annually.

That’s a big ask in the current environment. TRIP highlights recent estimates from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) that project state transportation revenues will be decreased by at least 30% – approximately $50 billion – over the next 18 months due to the reduced level of vehicle travel amid the coronavirus pandemic.  

As a report’s authors point out, the quality and connectivity of America’s rural transportation system directly supports the economy and quality of life for the approximately 60 million Americans, or 19% of the U.S. population, living in rural areas. While the challenges facing rural America are similar to those in urban areas, rural residents tend to be more heavily reliant on their limited transportation network – primarily rural roads and highways – than their counterparts in urban areas.  

Additionally, America’s rural transportation network is the backbone of the country’s food supply chain, an issue that has been under the spotlight during the pandemic. Trucks provide the majority of transportation for agricultural products, accounting for 47% of total ton-miles of travel, compared to 37% by rail, and 8% each by barge and by mixed modes.

Dave Kearby, executive director of TRIP, thinks now is the time to push for the funding America’s rural transportation system badly needs. “The economic recovery from the pandemic could be hastened by significant investments in our nation’s transportation system to support job creation while making needed improvements to our roads and bridges that will serve our economy and enhance the quality of life for all Americans for decades to come.” The full report, including more detailed state-level information, is available  HERE.

Other ag leaders agree. The Rebuild Rural coalition just recently sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to prioritize rural infrastructure in the next COVID-19 relief package. Among the many areas that they highlight shortfalls, including broadband access and quality healthcare, the coalition also urged Congress to focus on the food supply chain. The letter explains that the ability to meet the country’s food needs relies on “robust and reliable transportation infrastructure.”

The Rebuild Rural Infrastructure Coalition is comprised of more than 250 organizations from across the country focused on rural communities, U.S. agricultural producers, rural businesses, and rural families. Learn more HERE. (Sources: TRIP, Rebuild Rural)

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