Steve Bemis has a bridge problem that is all too common for rural areas: He has to drive “the long way around” to move equipment or haul crops in DeKalb County, Ill., because a local bridge is closed. “It’s been four years and the bridge is still out,” he says. “There’s not a crossroad handy so it takes us up to four miles out of the way, depending on where we’re going.

“Now we’re forced to deal with more traffic and it’s more dangerous. If you’re hauling grain, the cost of diesel adds up,” Bemis concludes.

A new study sponsored by the Illinois Soybean Association (ISA) offers hard data to demonstrate how much deteriorating bridges cost farmers like Bemis and what bridge improvements could mean economic development.

“It’s a tough sell to get funding for infrastructure, but it’s critically important, not just for us in agriculture, but for the entire economy,” explains Mike Marron, a farmer and ISA district director. “The idea is to get this information [in the study] out to the media and elected officials to let them know how critical these bridges are to getting what we grow to markets like Vietnam and China.”

Conducted by Informa Economics, the study looked at 12 bridges across Illinois. It determined each bridge’s net benefit to farmers and local communities by calculating alternative route costs. The bridge near the Beamis farm would produce an annual net benefit to farmers and the local economy of nearly $1.1 million, a return of 37.27% for each dollar spent on maintaining the bridge.

In Iroquois County, the study looked at a modest bridge over a small stream that feeds into Sugar Creek that sits between Stockland Grain Company’s main facility and its train loading station. “It’s our lifeline going out of here,” says Sonny Metzinger, Stockland’s president. “A majority of our beans and 95% of our corn goes out by rail. We load 1,000-1,200 rail cars/year.”

Though the bridge is open, its weight restrictions limit trucks to two-thirds of a load, increasing Stockland’s grain transport costs by a third. “I’ve got 300 acres worth of crops that come over that bridge at one time or another,” says Craig Cheever, a local farmer. “If it goes out, it would triple my time to get to the elevator, especially with a tractor and wagons, and that’s more manpower and more cost.”

Informa calculated net benefits of $110,387 and a benefit ratio of $8.36 for every dollar spent on maintaining the Sugar Creek bridge.

Repairing 10 of the 12 bridges would produce a positive benefit-to-cost ratio, according to the study, but they represent just the tip of the deficient bridge problem. Illinois has more than 26,000 bridges, of which 15.4% are deficient or obsolete. The top 10 corn- and soybean-producing states have more than 27,000 bridges either closed or with posted weight limits.

“We’ve gone to semis and big wagons and these bridges just weren’t built for that,” says Cheever. “My bridge is on a list to be replaced, but that could take 20 years. Eventually this is all going to come back to bite us.”