WI officials stress importance of transportation to ag sector

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
With the approach of spring motorists will encounter more farm implements on rural roads.  While some rules changed, common sense on the part of both must apply.

Transportation and agriculture go hand in hand in Wisconsin, and some government officials believe it's important to invest in infrastructure in order to make economic recoveries.

Randy Romanski, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, and Craig Thompson, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, sat down to talk about the departments' relationship on an episode of Transportation Connects Us, the DOT podcast.

Thompson said a huge focus for the Evers administration is fixing bumpy, crumbling roads throughout the state, especially local roads that handle agriculture-related equipment and trucks. He said they're also making bridge repairs and rehabilitation a priority because they are essential to agriculture on the road.

"We've got over 115,000 miles of state and local roads in Wisconsin, and of that about 90% is local," Thompson said. "We're the dairy state. Our farming heritage is why we have that many miles of paved roads in Wisconsin. We need that to be able to facilitate the tremendous agriculture that we have going on in all parts of the state."

Romanski said Wisconsin's $104.8 billion agriculture industry is so strong because of the state's heavy investment into its transportation infrastructure, from roads to rail and harbors. Ultimately, transportation is responsible for getting products from the farm, to the processor, to the distributor and finally to the consumer, he said.

"That first mile that commodity takes might be on a local road, so it's really important to have that strong local road foundation," Romanski said. "Then that product could go onto the backbone system – it could go out on rail, which is strong in Wisconsin. It could go through a port in Wisconsin. There's so many ways to move product."

Craig Thompson is the executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.

Broken bridges can be a huge obstacle for farmers, Thompson said, because a bridge being out of commission may cause them to take a detour for many miles if there aren't too many local roads around. He added that those difficulties affect the bottom line for farmers who spend more time, money and fuel rerouting their implements and trucks.

Thompson said investing in transportation is a win for everyone – Wisconsin's other top sectors, tourism and manufacturing, also rely heavily on solid roads and other forms of transport.

"When we look at economic recovery ... I think of investing in our infrastructure, improving our infrastructure," Thompson said. "While we're improving it, we're going to be creating jobs and adding to the economy, and the net result of having improved those infrastructures are going to help our (industries)."

Those investments also help move along the supply chain, which suffered many blows during the COVID-19 pandemic, Romanski explained. He added that besides low commodity prices, severe weather and international trade issues, the state's supply chain in food products suffered from the economic impact the pandemic wrought.

Romanski said Thompson and the DOT have been good partners during this time as they provided "critical guidance and flexibility" to help improve supply chain efforts.

"That's the response to COVID-19 – you invest in your strengths to recover and promote economic sustainability. Infrastructure is at the core of that," Romanski said. "A solid transportation system is essential."

Randy Romanski

Thompson said intermodal transportation – moving a product or person using multiple modes of transport – is also being focused on right now. He said an advisory committee for Wisconsin's intermodal transportation issues was formed recently and has been giving good advice on how to move forward. He said the ports of Milwaukee and Green Bay are especially receiving attention for trade that benefits Wisconsin farmers.

"We're hopeful that we can have some more intermodal goals because I think we can greatly reduce the transportation costs for some of our farmers if we can make that as easy as possible for them to (help) reach markets both domestic and abroad," Thompson said.

The state has invested much of its new revenue in DOT infrastructure programs, Thompson said, like fixing the state's two-lane highways and helping fund transport projects in local municipalities. The Multimodal Local Supplement Program was budgeted $75 million in grants for local governments, who are allowed total control over the project. He said they've also identified at least 19 bridges to be repaired or rehabilitated.

Romanski reminded listeners that we should also be working to prevent crashes between passenger vehicles and agricultural implements on local roads, since farmers often can't avoid traveling on them. He asked drivers to be patient, slow and aware of their surroundings. Thompson added that it's illegal to pass farm equipment in a no-passing zone.

"It's up to all of us, farmers and motorists alike, to make sure that we all get where we're going safely," Romanski said. "Give the vehicle space. The vehicles that we see out on the roads nowadays, the farm implements, are pretty sizable vehicles, you can see them from a ways off."