Feb 22, 2020 - Economy

America's rundown roads add to farmers' struggles

Illustration of a mud-covered street sign featured a struggling farmer icon

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

American farmers are struggling to safely use the roads that cut through their fields, with decades of neglect and lack of funding making many routes dangerous.

The big picture: President Trump has long promised to invest billions in rural infrastructure, and his latest proposal would allocate $1 trillion for such projects. Rural America, where many of Trump's supporters live, would see a large chunk of that money.

The Trump plan includes:

  • $35 billion to repair some of the country's 47,000 bridges, most of which are in rural areas and in poor condition.
  • $25 billion to increase access to broadband, transportation, water and other projects.

How Trump plans to pay for it: The proposal relies entirely on federal funding, rather than a portion coming from states and local government. A large chunk of the money would come from existing fuel tax revenue, AP reports.

  • The big question: It's still unclear how Trump plans to fund the full $1 trillion. He still lacks revenue sources for the $450 billion he's proposing for roads, bridges, public transit and other infrastructure needs, per AP.

Why it matters: Rural America's decaying arteries are unable to handle the weight of large farm equipment or tractor-trailers hauling freight, creating dangerous driving conditions that force some farmers to take miles of detours to get to a destination less than half a mile away, the New York Times reports.

  • The scarce funding forces rural counties to patch stressed routes, rather than repave them, as a more affordable alternative.

National Transportation Research Group highlighted some of rural America's challenges:

  • Streets fail to connect communities locally and nationally.
  • Roads cannot support the growing number of freight trucks traveling across the country.
  • Fatalities are higher on rural roads and bridges because of deterioration and a lack of safety features.

The state of play: 19% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, but 68% of the country's total lane-miles are in rural America, according to the Department of Transportation.

  • Two-thirds of freight runs begin their journeys in rural America, and traffic continues to increase.
  • A semi-trailer truck can cause 5,000 to 10,000 times more damage to a road than a car, the Times notes.
  • The fatality rate on rural roads is 2.1 times higher than on urban roads, per DOT.

Between the lines: Axios' Alayna Treene reports that Trump and Democrats in Congress are actually closely aligned on the need for improved infrastructure. Left to his own devices, Trump would happily spend federal money on the projects, but his own party is holding him back.

  • Disagreements over how much tax money to allocate for the projects have prevented the Trump administration from getting meaningful legislation passed and have contributed to several "infrastructure week" discussions at the White House.

Meanwhile, passing the broader FY 2021 budget will be an uphill battle for the Trump administration. Democrats are already attacking many of the proposed cuts to domestic programs, particularly reductions to Medicaid, The Washington Post reports.

Go deeper: The rural America death spiral

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