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There's vital work underway to keep America's rural bridges standing

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Posted at 11:39 AM, May 27, 2022

WOODSTOCK, Vt. — Tucked away in a rural corner of this country, covered bridges dot the landscape of countless communities across Vermont. But this quintessential part of the New England landscape is starting to show its age, shedding some insight into a much larger problem in America's rural infrastructure system.

Joe Poston helps oversee operations at Wright Construction based in Mount Holly, Vermont. The company is one of just a few that is certified to restore and rehabilitate these iconic New England structures whose histories date back to the early 1800s.

"They were all made by farmers so each bridge has its own quirks," Poston noted.

While their aesthetics are stunning, these bridges also serve as lifelines connecting a patchwork of rural communities.

But after 200 years, many are in desperate need of repair. Over the past two decades, Poston and his crews have rebuilt dozens of covered bridges. They are often multi-million dollar, complex projects.

While working to keep the historic qualities of these bridges intact, they are also trying to update this critical piece of rural infrastructure.

Increasing weight capacity to handle cars and other vehicles that weigh considerably more than they did at the turn of the 17th century.

"Some of the work we do increases the weight rating on bridges. Many towns want to get an ambulance across the bridge so we add bigger timbers to the bridge," he added.

According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, there is currently a $200 billion backlog in needed repairs for this country's rural transportation system.

Andrew Walmsley serves as the agency's Senior Director of Government Affairs and says crumbling roads and bridges across this country's smaller communities often make it harder for farmers to transport food and other goods.

"It's the lack of investment over many, many years. Anything that delays that increases costs and creates a challenge," he said.

There is some hope on the horizon for America's patchwork of rural bridges. The infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year allocated $40 billion for bridge repair and replacement.

"That investment won't be overnight but we can start chipping away and states can make improvements that are needed," Walmsley said.