Knowing the cost of bad infrastructure

Moscow-Pullman Daily News

Sept. 15–Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers releases its Infrastructure Report Card, which grades the state of America’s bridges, roads, railways, waterways and other elements of U.S. transportation infrastructure.

In 2017, U.S. infrastructure earned a D+.

That is bad for business around the country, and particularly in the Northwest where farmers rely on that infrastructure to get their product to market.

“For farmers, it’s critical because their sole existence is a function of their ability to transport their product to consumers efficiently and cost-effectively,” said Eric Jessup, director of the Washington State University Freight Policy Transportation Institute.

Improving these structures costs money, and funding is often limited. So, Jessup and a research team being funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are working to help state officials and stakeholders in the transportation and agriculture industry prioritize transportation projects.

Jessup said most transportation projects become the responsibility of the local jurisdiction. Pullman, for example, decides which roads and other projects to work on within its city limits. Washington state is in charge of projects within its borders.

The problem, Jessup said, is that freight moves across these jurisdictions. That is why Jessup and his team are trying to educate stakeholders on the importance of investing across an entire supply chain.

Specifically, they are focusing on four products: wheat, soybeans, tree nuts and poultry products.

In improving these supply chains, they believe construction projects will make exporting more efficient and provide economic benefits.

They also make life easier for the employees shipping the product. When an employee has to sit in traffic at the congested Puget Sound area, “that’s a real cost to exporters,” Jessup said.

To spread the word, they have offered workshops around the country, and will hold another Sept. 28 in Atlanta where they will focus on poultry.

While infrastructure is vital to the U.S. economy, roads, bridges, rails and dams are aging, unfit for heavy traffic and underfunded.

Jessup said most dams and locks were built somewhere between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s, and had a life expectancy of around 40 to 50 years. The vast majority of the country’s highways were built around the same time. These structures have been heavily used since then, with roads and bridges having to support a greater capacity of weight, he said.

When it comes to lack of funding, Jessup pointed to the federal fuel tax, which has not been raised since 1993, and has not accounted for inflation. Additionally, more electric vehicles on the road means less fuel tax revenue being generated.

The AMSCE Infrastructure Report Card looks at factors like condition, safety and funding. So, Jessup said, when you take a transportation system built decades ago, funded by an outdated tax, it becomes obvious why the U.S. earned a D+ rating.

“It’s not rocket science,” he said.

Among local projects Jessup’s team points to as examples of transportation improvement is the work being done to strengthen Columbia River jetties at the mouth of the river — a crucial passageway for exports. Those jetties protect the mouth from disruptive waves, he said.

Another is Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s project to build a second rail bridge near Sandpoint to allow rail traffic to flow more freely in both directions.

Jessup said a great deal of freight, including grain, moves along that line and building a second bridge would allow a greater capacity of freight.

Anthony Kuipers can be reached at (208) 883-4640, or by email to akuipers@dnews.com.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.