A new report recommends 20 ways to inexpensively replace or extend the life of deteriorating rural bridges across the country that are critical for moving agricultural commodities and farm equipment.

The report, released by the Soy Transportation Coalition, says the fixes include installing all-steel piers, which have been found to provide “enhanced strength, resistance to corrosion, and lower maintenance costs compared to reinforced concrete,” or using retired railroad flatcars to replace a short-span bridge. The coalition is made up of 13 state soybean boards, the American Soybean Association, and the United Soybean Board.

The report said flatcar bridges are “quick and easy” to install and require minimal maintenance, and that construction can be completed in six weeks.

Old railcars have been used as bridges "in a number of areas but not widespread. In doing so, you can replace a rural bridge for $100,000 (or) $120,000 versus $300,000-plus,” STC Executive Director Mike Steenhoek said.

Too often in the past, the response to fixing deteriorating rural bridges has been to close them, impose load restrictions or just wait for government funding to fix them, Steenhoek said. 

In 2019, 79% of the nation’s bridges rated as poor or structurally deficient were in rural areas, according to national research nonprofit TRIP.

While most rural bridge projects are completed by state and local municipalities, Steenhoek said the federal government can set the tone on spending taxpayer dollars wisely when it comes to funding certain projects.

Mike Steenhoek

Mike Steenhoek, Soy Transportation Coalition

“The federal government can play a meaningful role in emphasizing preservation, maintenance, employing and embracing innovative approaches for doing things for a fraction of the cost without compromising safety to any degree,” Steenhoek said.

Brian Keierleber, a past president of the National Association of County Engineers, was one of three principal analysts on the report. Keierleber, who lives in northeast Iowa, said he’s replaced bridges that date back as far as the 1870s.

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“The system has been neglected for so many years that there’s some major issues and problems. The funding hasn’t been dedicated to maintaining the roads and bridges for an extremely long period of time,” he told Agri-Pulse.

Even bridges he built back in the 1980s and 1990s aren’t built to the standards needed for today, Keierleber said.

More state and national laws allow heavier and heavier truck loads, and lawmakers need to understand how that is harming infrastructure, Keierleber said.

He said there are faster and less expensive ways of replacing bridge piles, such as the use of what are called vibratory H-piling drivers instead of cranes. Using vibratory H-piling drivers is a method where a vibrating hammer grabs a pile, a type of steel pole used to hold up the bridge, and pounds it into the ground vertically. The report noted that using this method to drive 10 piles costs roughly $2,000 versus using a crane that can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000.

Keierleber cautioned that while some construction techniques work well in one part of the country, like the Northeast, a different innovation may work better in the Midwest. “Not all shoes have the same purpose,” he said.

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