President Joe Biden’s plan to spend billions for better roads, safer bridges and modernized locks and dams on waterways will aid rural areas and the agriculture sector, but some groups say his broad definition of infrastructure and his proposed tax increases are problematic.
Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska, said he is heartened by the $115 billion the plan says is needed to “repair the worst 10,000 smaller bridges, including bridges that provide critical connections to rural and tribal communities.”
Hladik said large-scale farming means heavy equipment is needed for harvesting and the routes to fields frequently mean crossing bridges “in very, very poor condition” built decades ago for smaller vehicles. Navigating those bridges can be tricky.
"When you’re growing corn, you need to bring your semi and your trailer to that field to haul the corn back away,” he said. “Well, if you can’t get to that field because all of the bridges are out or all of these bridges are so antiquated that they are not designed to hold the weight that you have with your machine, you can’t do your job.”
The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 report card gives U.S. roads, bridges, rails, waterways, public parks and other infrastructure an overall grade of C-. The grade was an improvement from D+ in the last report card issued in 2017.
The report says 43 percent of U.S. roads, mostly non-interstate streets in rural and urban areas, are in a poor or mediocre state while 42 percent of bridges are at least 50 years old and 7.5 percent of them are structurally unsound. The report card estimates there is a combined $786 billion backlog of road and bridge repairs. The report also estimates there is a $6.8 billion backlog in construction of aging locks.
Hladik also sees promise for rural areas with Biden's proposed $100 billion for access to broadband service, which is increasingly viewed in agriculture and rural development to be as essential as access to electricity. He said broadband and the growing use of technology in agriculture could lead to good-paying, high-tech jobs in small towns and communities.
He wonders if other parts of the $2 trillion proposed plan will “distract from the other tangible brick and mortar problems we have. I don’t know. That’s a fair question.”
The Biden plan proposes $621 billion over eight years for transportation-related infrastructure, including $80 billion for passenger and freight rail; $17 billion for inland waterways, coastal ports, land ports of entry, and ferries; $85 billion for modernizing existing public transit; and $25 billion for projects of regional or national importance.
The plan is drawing Republican opposition as a tax-and-spend package for its cost and for proposing that the corporate income tax rate rise to 28 percent from 21 percent and that the minimum tax rate paid by U.S. multinationals rise to 21 percent from 10.5 percent.
Growth Energy, an ethanol industry trade group, said it's disappointed the plan proposes a limited role for biofuels in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A boost for corn-based ethanol would add to the bottom line for corn farmers. The plan includes $174 billion in incentives for consumers to buy electric vehicles, aid to state and local governments to build a network of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations by 2030, moving the federal vehicle fleet to electric powered replacements and electrifying at least 20 percent of the nation’s school buses.
Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor said the administration also should view ethanol as tool for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from internal combustion engines that will likely be on the road for years as the U.S. works to cut its greenhouse gas emissions.
“It is now even more crucial that any further legislation proposed by the Administration and Congress include a robust role for ethanol,” Skor said in a statement.
Skor said studies show that ethanol can reduce carbon emissions.
“Since 2010, biofuels like ethanol have been responsible for cumulative carbon dioxide savings of nearly 600 million metric tons in the U.S., or the equivalent of removing 130 million cars from the road, roughly half of our nation’s fleet,” she said.
Skor added that the group will carry that message to congressional supporters and the administration in an effort to “to ensure that biofuels have a leading role in helping our nation upgrade its infrastructure and address climate change."
The American Farm Bureau Federation said the package appears to address long-standing infrastructure concerns, but spokesman Mike Tomko said via email that the organization thinks “raising taxes, particularly when our country is trying to emerge from the pandemic’s economic blow, is a misguided idea.”
Tomko said the Farm Bureau has “long advocated for expanding rural access to broadband and supports rebuilding crumbling roads, bridges, ports, waterways and water systems, as well as research funding, all of which are included and important.”
The organization is interested in the $5 billion proposed for a Rural Partnership Program that the plan says would serve rural communities and tribal areas, but wants more details, he said.
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, also voiced concerns about how the plan will fare in Congress despite several elements that usually would draw bipartisan support.
“Whenever legislative proposals and initiatives — especially controversial ones — get attached to a particular plan, the prospects of ultimate passage usually go down rather than up,” he said in a statement.
Steenhoek said the coalition, which represents state and national soybean organizations focused on transportation issues, thinks the proposals for bridge repairs and work on ports and inland waterways would improve agriculture’s ability to move products from field to market. The construction and road work the package would generate could also raise demand for use of soy-based concrete enhancers and asphalt sealants, he said.
“President Biden should be commended for ensuring rural bridges — often serving as the initial link in the agricultural supply chain — are included in the plan. Given how over half of U.S. soybeans are exported, having an effective system of inland waterways and ports is essential for future competitiveness,” he said.
Christopher Gibbs, an Ohio farmer and board president of Rural Voices USA, said his group would like to see the plan move ahead with bipartisan support. But Gibbs, whose organization represents a network of farmers and rural community leaders, said in a statement that “putting these investments on hold any longer shouldn’t be an option. Rural communities need an economic boost and this plan delivers. Infrastructure jobs pay better than other blue-collar jobs, giving rural workers a shot at family-wage jobs and helping to rebuild our towns and communities.”