A Bridge to Normalcy

May 18, 2022

President Biden’s recent Pittsburgh visit collides with reality

May/June issue

America has a bridge problem.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, more than 40% of the approximately 617,000 bridges in the United States are at least 50 years old. Moreover, about 7.5% of these bridges, or more than 46,000, are considered structurally deficient, meaning they are in “poor” condition. These are the bridges over which our children go to school and they’re how essential goods are delivered, including dangerous cargo.

As fate would have it, one of these already determined to be in poor condition, Pittsburgh’s Fern Hollow Bridge on Forbes Avenue, collapsed without warning only hours before President Biden arrived on a scheduled visit. The purpose of his visit: to hold a press conference promoting the $1.2-trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

This time, the outcome was fortunate: no one died. We weren’t as lucky in 2007, when the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed without warning during rush hour. Thirteen people died and another 145 were injured, as 111 vehicles were involved.

Such sad lessons as the Minnesota collapse remind us of the importance of the proper design, construction protocols, and ongoing maintenance for our nation’s infrastructure, including bridges.  Fortunately, the IIJA includes substantial programs to improve the state of our nation’s bridges. Many of these include shovel-ready projects that will improve our quality of life. For example, in January, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration announced state-by-state apportionments for the Bridge Formula Program in the IIJA. For each state, this $27 billion in funding will represent the largest-ever federal investment in the nation’s poor and fair condition bridges. 

By repairing these structures, we can prevent posted load restrictions from slowing down trucks and hindering shipping operations, and fewer traffic delays means greater efficiency for businesses. At the same time, families and individuals will have safer travel, whether by vehicle, bus or train. While this funding will not fully close our estimated $125 billion backlog of bridge repair needs nationwide, it is a significant down payment on the nation’s future. How do we ensure that these infrastructure funds are well spent? Improving or building out new infrastructure is a complex endeavor, which includes working across multiple jurisdictions and approval processes—often accessing a mix of funding sources, and paying close attention to the availability and cost of construction contracting, labor and supplies.

However, several factors should foster favorable implementation of the new law. First, during development of the bill, there was a focus on life cycle costs and total return on investment; emphasizing performance-based design criteria over prescriptive ones; an emphasis on resiliency in the design of infrastructure projects; and standards based on reasonable uses. Also, the act specifically acknowledges that local government needs funding for their assets, not just roads and bridges on the National Highway system or under State jurisdiction. The last mile typically has the greatest needs, yet it is the most severely underfunded.

Moreover, much of this work will be done in coordination with road improvement projects where the overall emphasis will be on traffic safety and, where possible, energy savings. This should result in easier to maintain, longer lasting infrastructure. We now have an inspired plan for safer, modern bridges and overall improved infrastructure for our nation. Everyone needs to keep infrastructure top of mind and funded, not something we only address when tragedy, occurs.

About The Author: Lehman is Director of U.S. Infrastructure, GHD, President-Elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers and co-author of the Bridges Chapter in the 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure

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