Complaints about Louisiana's roads and bridges are usually loudest in the places where drivers find themselves sitting in stand-still traffic. But those infrastructure concerns don't stop in the cities. The state's aging system of roads and bridges is putting a pinch on Louisiana’s largest industry — agriculture.
On a wet and foggy morning, 90 days into harvest, the flow of trucks into the Louisiana Sugarcane Cooperative is constant.
Mike Melancon has been growing sugarcane for more than 40 years. He says during a normal 100-day harvest, about 50,000 truck loads of sugarcane will be delivered to this mill in St. Martin Parish.
"There's usually always a truck on the scale 24 hours a day," he says. "This one coming in," he says, pointing to a truck that's just driven up, "is about a 92,000-pound load. So that's the gross weight of the truck and trailer and cane that's in it."
These days, Melancon is facing a problem he hasn't had before. Those deliveries are costing him more time and more money. The reason, he says, is something Louisiana has a lot of — bridges.
"Five years ago, a bridge was never an issue. You wouldn't even think about it," says Melancon.
Now, aging infrastructure means many bridges in the state are being closed, or the weight limit is being lowered, because they're no longer strong enough to safely support a 100,000-pound truck full of sugarcane.
"Our maximum weight is usually more than what the bridges are rated at. So our choices are to load lighter, which we do," explains Melancon.
But that means more trips. Or Melancon, and farmers like him, have to find another route from the fields to the mill.
Mike Strain is Louisiana’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry. He says in rural areas, an alternate route can be hard to come by.
"If you have to go 50 miles out of the way, that's 100 miles round trip. That's two hours or more for that truck per load — per load. If you’re a farmer, you've got so many trucks — every hour is precious," says the Commissioner.
More time means more fuel, more labor, more money — and that affects the bottom line. Higher costs for farmers eventually means higher prices at the grocery store.
Commissioner Strain says this infrastructure problem is bad for the state's economy as well.
"The natural resource-based industries are the foundation of our economy. The original dollars — oil, gas, ag, timber — without those original dollars," says Strain, "the economy grinds to a complete halt."
"I tell people all the time you can have a great road — with a bad bridge, you have nothing," says Dr. Shawn Wilson, who's in charge of Louisiana’s Department of Transportation and Development.
Many of the state's bridges, including those in rural parts of Louisiana, were built nearly 60 years ago. "When we build bridges, we build them for a useful life of 45 to 55 years," explains Wilson, "and so those structures are aging."
Most of the state's money for roads and bridges comes from a gasoline tax of 20-cents-per-gallon — a rate that hasn't changed since 1989. Wilson says that's not enough money to put a dent in the state's $13 billion backlog of maintenance projects.
Last year, the state legislature failed to pass an increase of the gas tax. Wilson says if funding stays the same, Louisiana's roads and bridges will continue to deteriorate.
"We're going to find ourselves closing more bridges and we're going to be forced to make decisions — which farm is the most important? Which bridge do I repair first? It's going to continue to get worse because the bridges that were 60 years old last year, they're going to be 61, and they're going to be 62. But those trucks that are going to need to cross them will be the same amount of trucks, because they're going to harvest every year. And that bridge will continue to be pounded. And we cannot keep up," he explains.
Back in St. Martin Parish, Mike Melancon says it's not just a financial pinch.
"At the end of the day," he says, "it means longer days running into the night when we don’t want to be on the roads, longer harvest. And just beside the money issue, it kind of changes your world."