The Alarming State of Our Nation’s Bridges

The Alarming State of Our Nation’s Bridges

1.  Our nation’s bridges are aging, which requires increased resources from Congress so they can be repaired or rebuilt as necessary. The current federal transportation funding bill provides only a portion of the funds necessary for repair and maintenance of bridges. Several states are repairing the existing assets as a priority but it is still important to have federal government support. Since the nation’s bridges are continually aging, traffic consistently rising, and local and state funds are diminishing the problem is worsening on a daily basis. The federal program was increased by 14% in 2006-2009 but the state level needs to increase at 47% at the same time.

2.  Congress needs to make sure that the funds collected for transportation projects, largely proceeds from gas taxes, are used for that sole purpose. Many states today transfer as much as 50% of the transportation funding to other purposes, despite the need to repair or maintain their existing facilities. Furthermore, the states must be given the versatility to develop long-term systems to prioritize the repair and maintenance of their bridges.Oftentimes, it is more cost-effective to repair bridges so that they do not become structurally deficient.

3.  Repair and maintain existing bridges so they will continue to be safe and accessible for people to use, and replace them as required to restore functionality. Congress must implement a “complete streets” system to make sure that aging bridges are maintained, repaired, or replaced so that they remain safely accessible to people on foot, in vehicles, on bicycles, or riding public transit.

Overview

Billions of dollars are allocated annually – locally, statewide, or federally – for maintenance and repair of existing bridges yet there are over 72,000 bridges – 12% of all the bridges in the U.S. – considered structurally deficient per the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). These bridges require replacement or rehabilitation. The design life of most existing U.S. bridges is 50 years, and on average, American bridges are 43 years old. This tally includes only those bridges deemed structurally deficient and requiring repairs – there are over 85,000 more deemed functionally obsolete (meaning that they do not adequately carry the necessary number, size, and weight of vehicles that utilize the bridge each day).

The backlog in maintenance will only get worse since bridges continue to age and the cost continues to rise. In 2009, a $17 billion annual investment ($850 billion, in 2006 dollars, over the next 50 years) was required to eliminate all bridge structural deficiencies. This number is expected to increase as bridges dealing with exceedingly heavy traffic and those constructed over 40 years ago under the Interstate System are nearing the end of their design lifespan. Fortunately, some states are working hard to address this concern and are attempting to reduce the backlog of structurally deficient bridges. However, even though this effort is significant, it remains inadequate. Two primary problems still exist: First, the current federal programs implemented do not really provide any assurances or incentives that the bridges are going to get fixed despite the claims of prioritizing bridge safety. Second, the existing investment level is not enough to cope up with the fast growing backlog for aging bridges.

The Issue of Repairing the Old and Constructing the New

Recently, many transportation agencies have prioritized new construction over the repair and rehabilitation of existing structures. As of 2009, only $10.9 billion was spent annually for the construction and maintenance of bridges. Nearly half of this came from the Federal Highway Bridge program, about 40% from state and local budgets, and the remainder from other federal programs. In 2008, the American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials estimated that the cost to repair or replace every structurally deficient bridge to be $48 billion. An additional $91 billion is required to widen or replace all functionally obsolete bridges.

Another major problem with funding highway bridge projects is that states are currently allowed to “raid” the highway trust fund – the funds obtained via gas taxes.

The aging and deterioration of our nation’s bridges is a great reason for Congress to increase the allocation of funds when they meet to enact a new funding bill in 2015.

Needs Accumulate Faster than Funding

In the previous federal transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU, Congress included a provision for the creation of a Federal Highway Bridge Program. This program, which continues under the current transportation bill, was created to improve the condition of bridges through replacement, rehabilitation, and preventative maintenance. Preventative maintenance can include things as simple as expansion joint repair or as complex as seismic retrofit. As of 2009, the allocation of funding for the Federal Highway Bridge Program was approximately $4 Billion. The Federal Highway Bridge Program was created by the Congress meant to replace and fix structurally deficient bridges in the country but the current fund cannot handle the fast deterioration of the bridges. While the annexation increased by $650 million, the requirements for bridge repair and maintenance over the same period also increased by $22.8 billion.

Federal Support is Required by the States

Bridges are major assets for cities and regions, providing access for employees, movement of goods, and access for services, including the fire department, ambulances, and the military for defense. Billions of dollars are required to adequately address current deficiencies and obsolescence This is money well-spent considering that traveler safety, economic activity, and national security and safety are at stake.
If the roads and bridges continue in their current state, the ultimate costs for local and state governments will be billions more than currently estimated. The cost of replacement – or worse, failure – will be far more than periodic maintenance and repairs. The ever-expanding backlog of under-performing bridges will significantly increase the risks to safety, prevent economic prosperity and will substantially affect taxpayers, both now and in the future.

To extend the lifespan of a bridge, repair and rehabilitation efforts must be prioritized in order the avoid replacement – or failure. Apart from safety, expansion of the country’s transportation program creates jobs while providing a foundation for economic prosperity in the long-term. Because of the aforementioned reasons, Congress continuously declares that the safety and condition of the bridges are of national importance; however, the existing federal funding program is insufficient to handle the demand for funds.

Change is not an option.