Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Perfect Pothole Storm...

The 12" of rain we had in the last few days not only took a toll on our crops (and our spirits), but also our rural roads. Which led me to think about how the rural infrastructure was going to be maintained.

Here are some factors that seem to be all pushing the wrong way for rural roads in the US.
  • Farmers: we're using equipment that loads rural roads way beyond anyone imagined when they were designed. Semis are bad enough, but loaded grain carts are way past specs for our roads. And since so many of us farm all over several counties, we don't have a vested interest other than being able to get to our field and get gone. It's showing.
  • Oil prices: asphalt is derived from petroleum. My township road commissioner told me "cold patch" has tripled. So for starters, we won't begin to have enough resources.
  • Weather: I think we got lulled by several fairly benign winters and especially, springs. This one, with multiple freeze-thaws really busted up blacktop in my area.
  • Storage: as farmers store more on-farm and take less in the fall to the elevator, it doubles the trips that weight has to make over your farms access roads.
  • More corn: with more or all corn in our rotation, 3-4 times the weight must be hauled over the same roads. Now add in increasing yields.
  • Motor fuel tax shenanigans: not only do we have the ludicrous idea of a gas tax "holiday" floated at by presidential candidates (even while being shouted down by economists) but legislators at every level would love to redirect those funds to their own ends.
I am not optimistic we will be able to have good roads in places like rural Edgar County in the future. For too long, there has been a general acceptance by urban citizens to pay the majority of the cost for rural amenities. But expensive energy is going to change all that. The level of urban largess will drop like a rock as the spotlight shines on farmers making record income while wages stagnate elsewhere.

Meanwhile, urban transplants will be rethinking their country homes as the commute becomes an intolerable expense. The result is very few votes for directing tax money to roads only a handful benefit from.

I think it's time for farmers to take a page from Brazil and pay for our own roads. Heck, even make them tollways, in exchange for paying for the upkeep. This would be especially useful to price in the externalities BTO's escape by farming where they don't live. Imagine if they needed a township or private road sticker for every field they roar in and out of.

Meanwhile local residents could have the roads they pay for. This would place a premium on farming local, provide a strong case for renting local, and make many of us think twice about rolling out an overloaded tandem in a squishy spring blacktop.

Local Road Privatization - if it's good enough for the Skyway, it's good enough for 2100 E.


Anonymous said...

Your thoughts on the road are interesting. This is especially true with the BTO comment. What you seem to be suggesting is that there could be a uncalculated cost shift for non-local operators. This could be soil/fertility degredation as well as poor infrastructure or community support.

Where you are at risk of really getting into trouble is that this implies some form of "local control" which in the case of confinement livestock facilities really stirs the pot.

John Phipps said...


I think the cost shift has occurred and this would equalize the the burden among those who derive income from the area. I have to live with the roads 24/7 wile they have no reason to respect the condition.

Of course, this cost could be part of local taxes and reflected in rents, but local taxes don't pay much of the burden compared to motor fuels tax.

The soil/fertility issue is not a public domain issue, however - it doesn't affect me if they mine the soil on your ground. Road use is I think a singular and contained issue with plenty of precedent to follow - tollways, etc.

The externalities of confinement operations (smell) are already subject to local control (zoning). However, if I had bid for and won the maintenance rights (and costs) of my road, it would at least allow me to recapture those costs. I just don't think that would be a big problem for most CAFOs.

Anonymous said...

sounds like a good farm bureau resolution--maybe you could get it to the rc by the time the meet in july--

Anonymous said...

John-You have asphalt township roads?In this part of the world they are either gravel or minimum maintaince dirt roads. Our problem is hunters and 4 wheelers that just have to try out their toys when our roads are muddy! Gravel is becoming scare too, upwards of $6 a yard if you can find it.

Anonymous said...

IMHO tases will be raised. We are just begining to feel the inflationary effects of higher petroleum costs.