Infrastructure & Environment

Fixing Bridges ... Or Not

The lack of money for bridge repairs is symptomatic of a larger problem: Transportation projects in general are going to slip behind.
by | June 2011

Remember when fixing bridges seemed like it was going to be a big deal? After the 2007 Interstate-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, many states talked about the need to address an infrastructure crisis that included crumbling bridges [Read "Six Ideas for Fixing the Nation's Infrastructure Problems"].

But bridges have never emerged as a real spending priority. Even when states were handed what amounted roughly to an extra year’s worth of transportation dollars through the 2009 federal stimulus package, bridge repair remained rather low on the list.

A recent study by the advocacy group Transportation for America found that nearly 70,000 bridges -- or more than 11 percent of the nation’s total -- remain “structurally deficient.”

“Two key problems persist,” according to the group’s report. “While Congress has repeatedly declared bridge safety a national priority, existing federal programs don’t ensure that aging bridges actually get fixed; and the current level of investment is nowhere near what is needed to keep up with our rapidly growing backlog of aging bridges.”

It was never going to be the case that stimulus dollars would be spent primarily on bridges, says Lloyd Brown, a spokesman for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. For one thing, the term “structurally deficient” sounds scarier than the reality. All the term means is that a bridge needs repair -- not that it’s about to fall down. State transportation departments inspect every bridge at least once every other year. They shut down the ones that aren’t safe to drive on, Brown says.

Also, bridge projects are generally too complicated to have met the spend-it-fast demands of the stimulus law. “Most of the states put money into things they could move quickly, such as asphalt overlays,” he says. “Bridge projects, especially replacement projects, tend to be a longer-term development.”

Some states are making a concerted effort to fix up their bridges. Oklahoma is midway through a decade-long project devoting nearly $2 billion to bridge repair. The state still holds the second-worst ranking in the Transportation for America report, but it’s brought down the number of its problem bridges by 32 percent over the past five years.

But for most states, bridges are symptomatic of a larger problem. Transportation projects in general are going to slip behind. President Obama and House Republicans have ruled out increases to the gas tax, and the next federal transportation law is likely to offer states half of what Obama initially asked for.

“It’s not a question of whether it’s important, it’s a question of whether there’s money to do much,” says Richard Little, who heads the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at the University of Southern California. “The way the country is right now, if we had bridges falling down every week, I don’t know if we could get both sides to agree on a program.”

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