Replacing and repairing U.S. bridges will require thousands of workers

The country’s deficient structures will take more than 80 years to fix if the construction industry does not act quickly

Mary Scott Nabers / June 12, 2019
Mary Scott Nabers
With more than 47,000 bridges in the U.S. identified in a recent survey as in critical need of repairs, government leaders nationwide are scrambling to find and allocate funds.

However, a recent report by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) delivers troubling news. According to the industry organization, repairing and replacing the country’s “structurally deficient” bridges will take more than 80 years if the construction industry cannot move at a monumental pace to fix them once funding is made available.

Construction leaders know the industry has an Achilles’ heel. While companies may enjoy an overabundance of demand, the struggle to find qualified workers will be difficult … or impossible if something is not done.

The country’s construction labor shortage is severe. More than 60,000 construction jobs were lost during the Great Recession, and those losses have not been replaced. At the end of February 2019, there remained—years after the initial loss—a record number of job openings in the industry.

“Structurally unsound” is a term that is far too commonly used when describing America’s bridges. The classification indicates that one or more key components of a bridge require repair.

Responsibility for maintaining, repairing, and replacing bridges falls primarily on the individual states. However, in spite of warnings about questionable bridges over the past several years, many states have lacked the funding required to address their bridge problems. That is changing and the result will be an abundance of contracting opportunities.

 

A PLETHORA OF PROJECTS

In April, a section of the concrete railing fell from the I-75 North Bridge onto the I-24 westbound ramp below in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Sections of the roadway were closed, and the state’s transportation agency said that it could take a month to repair the bridge.

Other bridge incidents point to the danger and the need for immediate action. The collapse of Florida International University’s pedestrian bridge (covered extensively by Roads & Bridges) which left six dead and nine injured, and the Dale Bend Road bridge collapse on the Petit Jean River in Arkansas are examples of what can happen. Earlier this year, the Mississippi DOT (MDOT) announced an emergency closure of 34 bridges after inspectors found them unsafe, and more recently a further 61 bridges were ordered shuttered. The Federal Highway Administration let the state know that it would lose $530 million in federal transportation funding, an amount that would consume approximately half of MDOT’s budget, if the bridges were not closed immediately. The agency has allocated $250 million for bridge repair.

Rhode Island transportation officials are reaping the benefits of revenue collections that began last year when the state started tolling trucks to pay for bridge and road repairs. This year, the state DOT will spend $715 million on 77 projects. Among the bridge projects planned is the $22 million repair of I-295 bridges that connect the cities of Johnson and Cranston. More than 175 other bridge problems in the state will be addressed in projects that include repair, replacement, and preservation.

The state of New Jersey also is moving to reduce its backlog of structurally deficient bridges. Officials have renewed the state’s Transportation Trust Fund and increased funding to $44 million for local bridge repairs. However, that amount is woefully insufficient. It will take billions to address the entire backlog of bridge projects in New Jersey. Upcoming opportunities for contractors include the following:

  • Three bridges on Route 17 in Rochelle Park
  • Route 4 over the Hackensack River and River Road, Teaneck
  • I-80 over the Passaic River and McBride Avenue, Woodland Park
  • Route 4 over Grand Avenue, Englewood
  • Route 3 over CSX and Ramp A, North Bergen
  • Route 495 eastbound over Route 3 eastbound and Route 1 ramp, North Bergen

State leaders in Illinois are in discussions to allocate transportation funding so that bridge repair can begin there, and the Virginia DOT has announced that it will seek a contractor to replace the superstructure of the Chatham Bridge, which connects Stafford County and the city of Fredericksburg. This project has an anticipated completion date of early 2022.

The North Carolina DOT (NCDOT) is developing a project to replace two bridges along NC 55 over the South Prong Bay River and Alligator Creek in Pamlico County. The first bridge has been classified as structurally deficient as some components are in poor condition. Replacement of the second bridge would alleviate the current escalating costs required to maintain the structure.

In Ohio, Miami County officials announced a plan to replace or rehabilitate 342 bridges. One project includes replacing an existing steel beam bridge on Croft Mill Road with a galvanized truss bridge. Bridges on Fenner, Miami-Shelby, and Sodom roads will all be replaced, and repairs are scheduled for numerous other bridges.

The governors of Oregon and Washington have announced a plan to open a joint office while an existing interstate bridge is replaced. The bi-state office will oversee public outreach, design, and engineering on the project to replace the I-5 bridge crossing the Columbia River. Oregon officials say the bridge is a seismic risk that will require redesign for freight and public transit. The bridge routinely creates a huge bottleneck and threatens economic growth. Lawmakers from both states are currently allocating the funding. The two states must demonstrate progress on the project to the federal government by September of this year, or $140 million of debt from past planning costs will come due.

NCDOT recently announced plans for a six-lane road on U.S. 74 and replacement of a bridge over the South Fork of the Catawba River. The project will expand a 1.2-mile stretch of road, widening the existing road and bridge to six lanes and a walkway. There also is discussion related to light-rail access.

Officials in Boston, Massachusetts, expect to begin construction on a new Long Island bridge in 2020. The mayor’s office announced plans to rebuild the 3,400-ft bridge between Moon Island and Long Island. Project design will be finalized this year, and the $92 million bridge will be fully funded by the city of Boston.

 

THE CRITICAL COMPONENT

These opportunities represent millions of dollars in contracting opportunities—if contractors can find skilled and experienced workers. Many in the industry are working cooperatively with community colleges and technical schools. New college internship programs as well as trade and apprenticeship programs have been announced. Efforts are also underway to bring more visibility to the immediate need for workers.

Many firms are offering incentives—higher pay, enhanced safe work environments, and more robust benefits packages. Industry organizations are trying to help communicate the benefits of careers in the construction industry to younger workers.

Political outreach has been intensified. Construction leaders have urged Congress to pass legislation that allows companies to bring qualified guest workers into the U.S. to fill construction jobs. The problem is critical and there are ways, industry leaders explain, to recruit construction workers from other countries without creating immigration issues that concern elected officials.

A recent survey by the Associated General Contractors of America revealed that 79% of respondents said their firms hope to add more workers in 2019. Conversely, however, 78% also said they are having difficulty filling job openings, and they expect that trend to continue. The immediate problem intensifies as the pool of workers with recent construction experience continues to decline in America.

Bridge and highway projects are not the only segments of the construction industry that are suffering because of a lack of available workers. Schools, for example, throughout the country have thousands of immediate construction projects. The declining labor force has led to fewer firms bidding on projects and, without competition, higher costs are often the result. In addition, because schools are in session for nine months of the year, contractors must accomplish most of the work during the three months of summer. That requires a greater number of workers—workers that construction firms cannot easily find today.

The competition for construction workers is escalating. The reality is that construction firms cannot survive—much less thrive—without an adequate workforce. The country’s bridge repair and replacement projects will languish unless solutions are found. The result of a delay in relieving the shortage of workers will be higher costs and delays that jeopardize safety for motorists.

Dodge Data & Analytics reported that bridge and highway construction starts in March grew 4% after a decline of 5% in January and 6% in February. With construction spending projected to increase by more than 11% through 2022, finding experienced workers to meet the needs is a critical component in the equation.

 

About the Author

Nabers is president and CEO of Strategic Partnerships Inc., and author of Inside the Infrastructure Revolution: A Roadmap for Building America.

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