U.S. bridges continue to crumble

New report reveals 1 out of 9 spans are considered structurally deficient

News Transportation For America March 30, 2011
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One in nine of the bridges and overpasses American drivers cross each day is rated in poor enough condition that they could become dangerous or be closed without near-term repair, according to a report released today by Transportation for America.

Nearly 70,000 bridges nationwide are rated structurally deficient and are in need of substantial repair or replacement, according to federal data. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates that the backlog of potentially dangerous bridges would cost $70.9 billion to eliminate, while the federal outlay for bridges amounts to slightly more than $5 billion per year.

The report, The Fix We’re In For: The State of the Nation’s Bridges, ranks states in terms of the overall condition of the state’s bridges, with one being the worst, 51 being the best. Twenty-three states across the country have a higher percentage of deficient bridges than the national average of 11.5%.

The five states with the worst bridge conditions have over 20% structurally deficient bridges: Pennsylvania has the largest share of deteriorating bridges at 26.5%, followed by Oklahoma (22%), Iowa (21.7%), Rhode Island (21.6%) and South Dakota (20.3%).

At the other end of the spectrum, five states have less than 5% of their bridges rated structurally deficient: Nevada leads the rankings at 2.2%, followed by Florida (2.4%), Texas (3%), Arizona (3%), and Utah (4.5%).

In response to the crisis, Transportation For America has created a tool on its website so people could see the number of structurally deficient bridges in their area. All the user has to do is enter a zip code in the search engine.

“Since the 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, Americans have been acutely aware of the critical need to maintain our bridges,” said James Corless, director of Transportation for America. That need is growing rapidly, the report authors noted, as the average age of bridges passes 42 years for bridges that mostly were designed to have a 50-year lifespan before reconstruction or replacement.

“As Congress takes up the next six-year transportation bill, it is imperative that we devote a larger share of funding to protecting our bridges” Corless said. “Americans also want to see more accountability for maintaining our infrastructure: 64% of voters say that the way government currently spends money on building and maintaining our transportation infrastructure is inefficient and unwise, according to a February poll for the Rockefeller Foundation.”

Congress has repeatedly declared the condition and safety of America’s bridges to be of national significance. However, the current federal program falls short of the need, even as it allows states to shift funds from maintenance toward new construction, whether or not they can show progress toward rehabilitating deficient bridges.

Some states have worked hard to address the problem and have seen their backlog of deficient bridges shrink in number. For example, the Washington Department of Transportation has adopted a policy to give top priority to making repairs before costly reconstruction is needed. Compared to a national average of 11.5%, only 5.1% of Washington’s bridges are considered structurally deficient.

“Washington State Department of Transportation has made sound policy choices but our state, like so many others, is cash-strapped and needs greater federal support," said Paula Hammond, Washington State DOT secretary. "The federal government should recognize those states that have made asset management a priority and increase funding available to meet growing transportation needs."

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