ISA Addresses Illinois Transportation Issues

Private financing may offer some options when repairing aging infrastructure.

Published on: Apr 18, 2013

Illinois soybean farmers last Monday stressed the need to "find a way" to fix current infrastructure problems that limit efficient and effective movement of goods, including soybeans. 

Backed by soybean checkoff-funded research just released by the Illinois Soybean Association, farmer sentiments reflect identified challenges and opportunities to fixing deteriorating infrastructure.

"Illinois roads are in disrepair.  Many bridges are impassable by modern farm equipment because of weight restrictions, and river locks are crumbling after being in service since the Great Depression," says Ron Kindred, soybean farmer from Atlanta and ISA director.

ISA Addresses Illinois Transportation Issues
ISA Addresses Illinois Transportation Issues

Kindred explains that in order to reach ISA's goal of utilizing 600 million bushels by 2020, soybean production needs to increase about 30%.  But the infrastructure may not support it.

"This is a national issue.  We stand to lose millions of dollars if solutions aren't found," Kindred says.  "ISA is using the study results to transition from simply talking about potholes to finding ways to fix them."

Current problems
Transportation is second only to animal agriculture as an ISA priority.

"It is ultimately the farmer who suffers from these problems," says Ken Eriksen, senior vice president, Informa Economics, Inc., a Memphis-based research firm that conducted part of the research. "Lower transportation capacity means higher rates, which means lower farmer returns."

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Eriksen and his team found several major obstacles to reaching ISA's 600-million-bushel goal:

•Conditions of existing roads and bridges are worsening, and the percentage of those that are deficient or obsolete is increasing.  In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave Illinois infrastructure a "D+" rating.  

•The current backlog of lock and dam repairs and emergency repairs totals approximately $560 million, and existing roads and rails can't handle the increased volume should a waterway be suddenly closed. 

•Weight limit and overweight fee structures differ between states.  Imposed weight limits create a need for more truck drivers, but finding and training them is challenging. Increasing current weight limits would decrease the need for drivers moving agricultural products by 20% and save $84 million industry-wide per year.

Private financing
Despite these challenges, Eriksen explains their analysis found that U.S. infrastructure still has potential to be better than that of other countries.  For example, a truckload of soybeans in Brazil travels an average of 1,000 miles, compared to 35 miles in the U.S.

The research already has uncovered opportunities to overcome current deficiencies, such as public-private financing options to increase funding for infrastructure update.  A similar system is used in Panama.  ISA now is developing a recommendation for a private financing plan that would be relevant to infrastructure critical for agriculture product movements.

Illinois Soybean Growers met in March with Illinois Senator Dick Durbin to lobby for a public-private funding option for waterway maintenance.  Illinois senators and congressmen subsequently introduced the "Water Infrastructure Now Public-Private Partnership Act," which includes public-private partnerships for lock and dam modernization along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.

"There always are opportunities to get leverage and move projects up on the priority list; it just takes a concerted effort to make contact with local and state officials," says Ron Moore, soybean farmer from Roseville and ISA director.  "We are finding ways to capture value and elicit improvements with the research as a guide."

The research also serves as a gateway to an ISA project underway to establish container-on-barge shipping from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico.  The research found that the rates and travel time via barge to the Gulf are competitive with containers railed to the West Coast.

Source: Illinois Soybean Association