DALLAS -- Rural America is in danger of being bypassed by the 21st century economy due to failing and under-funded infrastructure in regions outside metropolitan areas, agricultural experts and representatives of rural groups warned lawmakers on a House panel.
Deteriorating waterways and roads are causing expensive delays in moving agricultural products to market while the lack of high-speed broadband internet service in small towns and farms is accelerating the population shift to cities, witnesses told members of the House Agriculture Committee at the Wednesday hearing.
Major investments in rural infrastructure are needed to maintain the U.S. position as the world’s premier food producer, said Tom Halverson, president of CoBank who testified on behalf of the Farm Credit System. CoBank provides funding to farmer-owned credit associations in 23 states.
“Those in rural communities have seen our infrastructure deteriorate, jeopardizing jobs, our agricultural competitiveness, [and] the health of rural families and communities,” Halverson said. “Past public sector infrastructure initiatives often focused on urban and suburban infrastructure improvements while ignoring or inadequately addressing the unique needs of rural communities.”
Transportation infrastructure upgrades are the most obvious need in rural areas but not the only one, Halverson said, citing the importance of providing clean water to rural families and linking farms and communities to the outside world through modern communications networks.
Meeting those needs will not be easy or inexpensive, he warned the lawmakers.
“The cost of investment needed to sustain and upgrade our rural infrastructure is staggering,” Halverson said. “Federal resources likely cannot fill the need entirely. Federal investments that pair state and local government investment with private sources of capital hold promise for raising a portion of the funds necessary to do the job.”
Rebuilding America’s public infrastructure seems to be the current policy proposal with the most bipartisan support, said committee chairman Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas.
“Perhaps nowhere is the need to renew our infrastructure greater than in America’s heartland,” said Conaway, who represents a mostly rural district in the Texas Panhandle.
That’s because rural America faces unique challenges that are different from urban areas, he said.
“Our shifting population, moving out of rural counties and into urban and suburban counties, is shifting the tax base, making it difficult for small communities to finance the upgrades they need to continue to be competitive in the modern economy,” Conaway said.
The White House said in May that the $200 billion of new direct federal funding that will be proposed in President Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure renewal program will include $25 billion of grants set aside for rural infrastructure projects and $100 billion that states and local entities could use for their own infrastructure needs.
Most rural roads and bridges do not receive federal funding, which means the responsibility for maintaining the surface transportation infrastructure falls to cash-strapped states and localities, said Rick Calhoun on behalf of the National Grain and Feed Association.
Only 44% of rural road mileage and 43% of rural bridges currently are eligible for federal funding, Calhoun said.
“Over the last decade, I have witnessed an alarming decline in historical competitive advantage that our transportation infrastructure has provided U.S. agriculture, and the corresponding increase in investment in critical infrastructure being made by our foreign competitors,” he said.
The Trump administration’s proposal to fund water infrastructure projects through state revolving funds would harm rural utilities that are already struggling to maintain their systems, said Brian MacManus, general manager of the East Rio Hondo Water Supply Corp. in south Texas.
“The funding, as currently proposed to partially occur through the state revolving loan process, will bypass rural America and be absorbed by large metropolitan water developments,” he said.