There is some cause for optimism on the U.S. bridge front

This column published as "A New Bridge Forward" in May 2019 issue

Brian W. Budzynski / May 03, 2019
Brian W. Budzynski

I don’t think I am alone in thinking that in recent years our national bridge situation seemed to teeter rather delicately on the edge of being objectively bleak.

While the term “structurally deficient” has fallen out of favor with the FHWA, it is still the favored term throughout our industry, notably employed by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) in its annual look at U.S. bridge conditions. According to ARTBA, there are 178 million trips across 47,000 “structurally deficient” bridges each and every day in this country. Between fractures, partial collapses and the (thankfully) rare total collapse, these persistent risks to road and bridge users are becoming, well, riskier.

Yet, even in the face of eye-opening statistics like this, there is cause for optimism, and not merely the sort that is less objective assessment than lip service window-dressed for the purpose of bullying up political morale.

As a nation, we are moving in the right direction with our bridge inventory: 2018 saw a slowdown in the progress of removing bridges from the SD list (approx. 1% against 3-4% in previous years), yet the overall trend of reduction persists. In 2014, nationally we were at 8.7% of all bridges deemed structurally deficient; now we are at 7.6%, a reduction of more than 5,800 structures. The number of lives saved (not to mention the prolongation of vehicle lives) may be presumed.

The question of resource allocation remains a sticky wicket. States continue to have to make difficult choices in highway and bridge investment, and that’s a pendulum effect most of the time, alternately favoring one form of investment against another (e.g. capacity projects vs. state of good repair). This is where the federal portion of funding is so crucial to increasing the number and rate of improvements that can be made. Most states and local jurisdictions are favoring maintenance and rehabilitation over replacement whenever possible. The extenuation of bridge life is as much about environmental stewardship as it is selective investment. An added advantage is a minimized impact on the driving public.

Another ray of light seems to be a willingness—or at least a perceived willingness—on the part of both political parties at the federal level to find common ground on the subject of infrastructure. In the last two years of the present administration there have been many a waft of proposed agreement with little actual result, but the breeze of potential solution remains steady. It is, if not encouraging, then at least to some degree reassuring to know that we have seen compromise on federal bills in the recent past; the passage of MAP 21 was also an unexpected boon when it occurred. It seems to be a question only of political will. The need to act is perfectly clear.

Here at Roads & Bridges Media we are likewise heading on a new course, yet our dedication to this industry remains the same. In this regard, we are in this together. As I wrote in the editorial letter to the Spring edition of Traffic & Transit magazine, which was published in conjunction with the very issue of R&B you now hold in your hands, let us not build walls. Let us build connections. In other words, bridges.

About the Author

Budzynski is managing editor of Roads & Bridges.

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