April 16, 2021

Let’s revamp rural bridges into a resilient system

Illinois has 26,809 bridges, with 2,273 of them listed as structurally deficient and in urgent need of being fixed or replaced. In addition, 1,191 bridges have posted restrictions on size and weight. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the infrastructure a grade “C” in its report card.

Unfortunately, funding for bridge maintenance and repair has remained flat since 1991, so the infrastructure continues to deteriorate. And the parts of the state where bridge conditions are most severe are in rural areas. That adds cost and inefficiencies to Illinois soybean production and detracts from the traditional global competitive advantage a robust transportation system offers.

The good news is that innovative ideas to improve the transportation sector are available. And in this challenging fiscal environment, it is past time for Illinois to take a hard look at these ideas.

The Illinois Soybean Association is hoping to reset that course by placing a spotlight on improving bridge function. Bridges and rural roads are the initial links in the transportation system and the overall supply chain that get soybeans from farm to customers.

While pursuing increased investment in infrastructure is appropriate — and closing or placing restrictions on certain rural bridges may be prudent given limited resources — ISA would like more attention devoted to the cost of replacing and repairing bridges without compromising safety.

So, how do we approach this? Resilience is a quality the transportation system needs. A resilient system is one when critical assets are disrupted has sufficient capacity to mitigate impacts of the shock. ISA has joined with like-minded stakeholders to encourage greater resilience.

For starters, Rebuild Illinois is a $45 billion investment program that includes addressing aging roads and bridges. The program should ensure we can make significant infrastructure improvements and upgrades.

In addition, the Soy Transportation Coalition has published a groundbreaking report identifying 20 proven, innovative ideas to reduce costs of bridge rehabilitation by as much as 50% over traditional methods, without sacrificing safety.

“Top 20 Innovations for Rural Bridge Replacement and Repair” found on the www.soytransportation.org website shares descriptions of these proven ideas, along with costs, construction times and best applications.

Another related concept ISA is supporting is bundling of bridge projects. This has proven successful in many states at replacing and rehabilitating rural bridges faster and at a lower cost.

ISA will continue to participate in these and other efforts to educate and engage local and state decision makers so that we can increase the strength of the agricultural supply chain and support Illinois soybean farmers. Our goal is to raise awareness of ideas across rural Illinois so we can accelerate the rehabilitation and replacement of these structurally deficient bridges.

For more information about ISA’s efforts, visit www.ilsoy.org.

Todd Main serves as Illinois Soybean Association transportation and infrastructure expert. He previously served as chief of staff with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.