WASHINGTON – 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 said 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 said is needed to "repair the worst 10,000 smaller bridges, including bridges that provide critical connections to rural and tribal communities."
"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 said 43% of U.S. roads, mostly noninterstate streets in rural and urban areas, are in a poor or mediocre state. It also said 42% of bridges are at least 50 years old and 7.5% 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.
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.
"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," said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition. "Given how over half of U.S. soybeans are exported, having an effective system of inland waterways and ports is essential for future competitiveness."
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% of the nation's school buses.
The American Farm Bureau Federation said the package appears to address long-standing infrastructure concerns, but spokesman Mike Tomko said via e-mail that the organization thinks "raising taxes, particularly when our country is trying to emerge from the pandemic's economic blow, is a misguided idea."
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.
Gibbs 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."