Amid shortfalls, soybean farmers fund bridge inspections

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan counties struggling to maintain aging infrastructure are turning to an unlikely source to finance advanced bridge safety inspections: Soybean farmers, who rely on weight-bearing crossings to move their goods to market.

Through the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee, farmers have helped road commissions in Midland and Lapeer counties purchase “LifeSpan” strain sensors to analyze bridge integrity more accurately than sight inspections. A third county, Hillsdale, is in the process of securing a similar grant as the soybean group expands its reach.

A double-trailer semi truck heads northbound on E. Sasse Rd. in Ingersell Twp. as it crosses the Fleming Drain.  Michigan's soybean farmers paid half the cost to purchase strain sensors to analyze bridge integrity in Midland and Lapeer counties. The road commissions paid the rest.

Officials at cash-strapped road agencies say the electronic sensors help them prioritize critical repairs or extend the useful life of old but otherwise safe bridges. And farmers benefit when road agencies are able to lift bridge load weight restrictions or avoid closures that would otherwise slow deliveries to grain elevators.

“If they have to bypass a bridge and drive an extra 10 miles or 15 miles or whatever it happens to be, that’s an extra cost to them — especially during harvest and planting season, when time is money,” said Kathy Maurer, financial and international marketing director for the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee.

An inspector uses electronic sensors to test the peak stress capacity of a Midland County bridge.

The effort comes on the heels of a 2015 bridge collapse in rural Van Buren County that was a "stark" example of how crumbling infrastructure can affect the state's second largest industry, said Gary McDowell, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The bridge collapse in the village of Breedsville “severely limited movement of local blueberries, causing headaches for local farmers and increasing their costs,” he told lawmakers this month during a hearing at Michigan State University. 

In a rare move, lawmakers in 2016 gave the Agriculture Department — not just the state or local road agency — $220,000 to help re-open the bridge, highlighting its importance to the rural economy.

“Both examples highlight not only the challenges food and agriculture face from failing infrastructure, but the lengths groups will go to fix infrastructure themselves since the proper funding model has not been in place," McDowell said

Midland County was the first in the state to qualify for a $10,000 bridge sensor grant from the soybean committee, a quasi-governmental group funded through an assessment of one-half of 1% on the value of the soybeans Michigan farmers sell. 

The local road commission used the technology to inspect three bridges in 2017 and another in 2018. In each case, officials lifted weight restrictions on bridges that had been imposed because of age, design or visual inspections.

“The difference is actually being able to load-test the beams and calculate what the real weight-bearing capacity in the beam is versus visual,” said Terry Palmer, managing director of the Midland County Roads Commission.  

“That’s four bridges right now that I don’t have to have high on my list for replacement. I can worry about other, more critical ones.”

In Midland County, the road commission used a strain sensor on the E. Laporte Rd. bridge over the Fleming Drain in Ingersell Twp. and lifted weight restrictions after they determined it was not unsafe.

The Soybean Promotion Committee awarded a grant to Lapeer in 2018 and is in the process of doing the same for Hillsdale. It plans to continue expanding the program by offering another grant each year. In the meantime, the group is encouraging officials to loan the technology to neighboring communities.

As Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer battles the Legislature for funding to “fix the damn roads,” the bridge sensor grant program could serve as a public-private partnership model for other industries that rely on functional roads and bridges, Maurer said.

“If I’m a business, and there’s a bridge down by me and my employees have to detour and my customers have to detour, would there be value in me putting $10,000 in to put something together to help fix that?” she said.

“It’s easy for all of us to sit back and say, ‘fix the roads,’ but we all know that’s just not happening. And when you’re talking about a business and they have to detour, especially when you’re talking about heavy equipment having to detour, that can get very expensive.”

Bridge conditions

Michigan has more than 11,000 bridges spanning 68 million square feet. More than 10% are rated in poor condition, and the Michigan Department of Transportation projects more than 15% will fall into that category by 2027.

Over 950 locally owned Michigan bridges are considered in poor condition, according to the state. And a growing number have fallen into “fair condition” and will become more and more expensive to fix.

A bridge sensor in Midland County.

Those bridges are the responsibility of local agencies. The state provides some supplementary funding each year through a Local Bridge Program, but demand consistently exceeds supply.

Local governments applied for between $250 million and $300 million in bridge repair or replacement funding for fiscal year 2020, but the state provided roughly $49 million, including about $18 million in federal aid.

Whitmer cited the funding gap this month while urging the Legislature to come up with a road repair plan after rejecting hers, which called for raising fuel taxes 45 cents per gallon over two years to generate $2.5 billion a year in additional revenue.

 “We are not in good shape, obviously,” said Erick Pearson, managing director of the Lapeer County Road Commission, which secured a grant from the soybean group in 2018.

Officials there are considering another ballot proposal after voters rejected a county-wide millage in 2014, “but I’m going to be honest with you, with the Lansing conversation right now, it would be difficult to get a new millage in place,” Pearson said.

“I think people are looking at the fact that they’re going slap us with a huge gas tax, so why would we want to pay another tax? But you know, that’s a fight we have to do.”

Pearson said he’s been “pleasantly surprised” by funding from a 2015 road funding law signed by former Gov. Rick Snyder that raised fuel taxes and registration fees.

But more money is needed, he said.

How it works

The LifeSpan analysis is typically a two-day process. Road crews first attach a series of stress sensors to key areas of a bridge. When the sensors have been in place for 24 hours, a driver moves a heavy truck over the bridge to test its strength.

The sensors measure strain caused by the crossing vehicle and feed data to a hand-held reader. Trained officials then use the data to determine the safety of the bridge and whether weight restrictions or other actions are warranted.

The North Carolina-based firm that produces LifeSpan says the technology provides “objective, actionable information so that states, cities and other owners can safely derive the lowest life-cycle cost from their bridge and other structural assets.”

Maurer said the Soybean Promotion Committee is not “married” to the LifeSpan brand but thinks it hits the “sweet spot of being reusable” and relatively inexpensive.

The soybean group pays for half of the system — $10,000 — and requires the county road agency to pay the remainder.

In Midland, the county road commission ended up spending about $12,000 on the system and training for its employees who would use it. And it costs roughly $3,885 in staff time and supplies to do each inspection.

But officials estimate it would have cost them more than $2 million to replace the three bridges they were instead able to lift weight restrictions on in 2017.

And they see it as a win-win for soybean farmers, who they estimate would have paid an extra $100,000 a year to haul crops and supplies if they couldn't use the bridges.

“The detour for all the farmers was quite lengthy to get around all these bridges, so it was very effective to test those first,” Palmer said. “Now they can just haul big loads right across all of them. No detour. No wasted time.”

Midland County has a local roads millage that voters extended last year, “but the county is struggling with what we have,” said Mike Atton, who chairs the local road commission.  “You do the best that you can.”