Did you know that in the United States’ 100 largest metro areas alone, there are more structurally deficient bridges than there are McDonald’s restaurants in the entire country?
Put another way, America’s bridges are crumbling.
Recent studies show that countless bridges across the United States have been in use far longer than their intended lifespans–and as a result, American infrastructure has suffered. At last count, one in nine bridges in America is due for an upgrade.
In the Transportation for America National Report released June 19, 2013, “If all 66,503 structurally deficient U.S. bridges were placed end to end, you could drive from Washington, D.C., to Denver, Colo., entirely on deficient bridges. At 55 mph, you’d be taking your chances for over 28 hours on one, long, bad American bridge. (Or farther than from Canada to Mexico.)”
The average designed lifespan for a bridge is 50 years–in 2023, one in four bridges will be 65 years old. A report released by Transportation for America said that some of the worst bridges can be found in the Northeast. Bridges in this area tend to be the oldest in the nation and have been abused for decades by the region’s climate. States with more than 20% deficient bridges include: Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Iowa, Rhode Island and South Dakota.
The Interstate 5 bridge that collapsed into the Skagit River in May was not structurally deficient but was noted as “fracture-critical” in its design. As bad as it sounds, the bridge was perfectly safe as long as it remained structurally sound. Unfortunately, the Skagit River bridge was built before the Interstate highway system and later incorporated into it. The bridge wasn’t originally designed to carry the large loads of today’s interstates. When an exceptionally tall tractor-trailer (carrying a legal-sized load) clipped the overhead support beams, the bridge failed. Ideally, a well-funded federal program would ensure systematic replacement or refurbishment of such high-volume bridges. Due to declining tax incomes from fuel, federal funds just aren’t available for these kinds of repairs.
The federal gas tax–the origin of major funding for the country’s infrastructure–has not been increased since 1993, currently standing at 18.4 cents per gallon. As cars achieve better gas mileage, revenue from the federal gas tax decreases, causing both federal and state governments to scour other sources for funding.
The Department of Transportation’s budget has steadily increased since 2003, when it was about $59 billion, to 2012 when it reached $73 billion. Many lawmakers, including President Obama, still say that is not enough to improve our roadways and bridges.
In 2012, Congress introduced MAP-21–a renewal of the transportation program that eliminated a dedicated bridge repair fund. This new law, however, eliminated a dedicated bridge fund and instead allows states to handle infrastructure funds as they see fit. In theory, states will be required to meet maintenance standards set under a new system of performance measures, but these performance standards have yet to be established.
What can help these bridges become safe again?
Transportation for America suggests the following changes:
1. Increase Investment
MAP-21 is a short-term bill that relies on about $19 billion in transfers of general revenues from the Treasury Department to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent through September 30, 2014, when the bill expires. Current spending levels are inadequate. Congress should raise new dedicated revenues for surface transportation programs, including bridge repair.
2. Make all 180,000-plus federal-aid bridges eligible for National Highway Performance Program funds
Under MAP-21 all of the money previously set aside for bridge repair was rolled into the new National Highway Performance Program, which represents 60% of all federal highway funding. Only 23% of all highway bridges are part of the federal highway system, therefore leaving 9 out of every 10 bridges ineligible for this funding. Transportation For America suggests the next federal authorization should allow the repair of these 180,000 “federal-aid” bridges to be funded by the National Highway Performance Program, as they were eligible for repair dollars under the previous Highway Bridge Program.
3. Prioritize Repair
The next federal transportation bill should make the repair of highways and bridges a national priority. Specifically, Congress should require states to set aside a share of their National Highway Performance Program funds for bridge repair.