If policymakers want to prop up aging bridges most in need of repairs, they’ll need to target more fixes for those owned by local governments.
A Governing review of Federal Highway Administration inspection data found a stark disparity in the condition of local bridges compared to those owned by states. According to federal data, bridges under local jurisdiction are more than twice as likely to be considered structurally deficient, suffering from deterioration to the bridge deck, substructure or other major component.
Some of these bridges – most of which counties own – are not heavily trafficked. And while states work with only limited funding for bridge repairs, municipalities possess even fewer resources. It’s for these reasons, experts say, that bridges localities own typically fall low on the list for priority repairs.
An analysis of 2012 FHA inspection data showed the disparity in bridge conditions to be widespread:
- About 15 percent of all bridges local governments own in the U.S. are structurally deficient, compared to 7 percent for states.
- Of states with at least 1,000 locally-owned bridges, only Colorado has a higher share of structurally deficient state than locally-owned bridges.
- Counties are responsible for more than half of the nation’s nearly 67,000 structurally-deficient bridges.
Factors transportation officials weigh in deciding which bridges to fix include age, density of traffic, type of traffic and proximity to detour routes.
Andy Herrmann, past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said states should take a hard look at all bridges when targeting investments. “You have to look at the system as a whole, not who owns the bridge,” he said.
To illustrate the contrast in bridge conditions, consider Oklahoma. Inspectors deemed nearly 32 percent of its 14,117 county-owned bridges structurally deficient last year, compared to about 9 percent of its 6,799 state bridges.
Some of the county bridges are older wooden crossings with shorter lifespans, taking a beating from trucks hauling heavy loads, said Randy Robinson, executive director of the Oklahoma Cooperative Circuit Engineering Districts Board, which coordinates research and funding for county roadways.
Up until 2006, the state provided counties less than $30 million for construction of new roads and bridges. This left local agencies largely unable to pay for construction of bridges long overdue for replacement.
“All they could do was patch, repair, and hopefully keep them open to traffic,” Robinson said.
Oklahoma's allocation for local repairs recently increased significantly. About 15 percent of motor vehicle tax revenues fund a program for county roads and bridges, an amount set to increase next fiscal year to 20 percent, giving counties an estimated $120 to $130 million to jumpstart improvements.
“The funding will go a long way,” said Robinson, who added that counties would otherwise close some bridges without it.
Inspection data reported by Iowa and South Dakota depicts a similar pattern. Only a small fraction of bridges those states maintain are structurally deficient, compared to about a quarter of bridges under the jurisdiction of local governments.
Even in areas where far more bridges are owned by the state than localities, the divide holds true. Pennsylvania – with the most structurally-deficient bridges in the country -- is responsible for two-thirds of its bridges inspected. Yet 35 percent of bridges counties, cities and towns own are deficient, compared to 20 percent for the Commonwealth.
The disparity in bridge conditions largely hinges on funding, said Bob Fogel, senior legislative director for the National Association of Counties.
Local governments typically lean heavily on real estate taxes for general fund revenues. Smaller or rural counties don’t have expansive enough tax bases to pay for upgrades. And urban localities often need permission to levy taxes funding transportation projects from both state governments and taxpayers – a major hurdle.
A smaller share of bridge funding trickles down from states and the federal government, varying greatly from system to system. Michigan, for example, distributes a portion of gas tax revenues to cities and counties, some of which is set aside for its Local Bridge Program. Other states also share fuel or motor vehicles taxes with localities, but even this added money doesn’t begin to cover all the costs.
“Our members feel the federal government and most state departments of transportation don’t provide county governments with the share of funds generated by gas taxes that are reflective of the condition of bridges owned by counties,” NACO’s Fogel said.
It’s worth noting that traffic congestion along many of these locally-owned bridges doesn't compare to major state highways.
Still, local bridges often do carry several thousand vehicles on a typical day. Fogel further emphasized less-traveled locally-owned bridges serve as vital links in regional economies, supporting supply chains and transportation of farm equipment.
Despite fears some citizens may hold, bridges deemed structurally deficient don’t pose an immediate safety risk.
However, a sizable number of the nation’s bridges are more than a half-century old, nearing the end of their lifespan. It's no surprise then that federal inspection data indicates states where structurally-deficient bridges are most prevalent also tend to close them more often.
The state with the highest number of bridge closures last year was Nebraska, where 18 percent of all bridges are structurally deficient. A total of 319 of its bridges were closed, followed by Pennsylvania (312), Iowa (303) and Oklahoma (245).
Far more bridges -- many of which are already in poor shape -- impose weight limits and other restrictions. About 11 percent of all bridges posted restrictions last year, according to federal data.
The bridge that collapsed in Washington state last month wasn’t structurally deficient. Rather, inspectors considered its outdated design features functionally obsolete, making it vulnerable to the oversized truck load that smashed into an upper span and set off a chain reaction, knocking a section into the Skagit River.
Much like the deadly 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, transportation advocates view the recent incident as another wake-up call.
“We have to recognize the problem of bridges in this country 24/7, not just when we have a problem,” Fogel said.
The total number of structurally-deficient bridges, as measured in federal data, dropped the past few years, but the decline has been slow. The American Society of Civil Engineers graded the nation’s bridges a “C+” in its recent infrastructure report card, up from a “C” in 2009.
Oklahoma and other states stepped up their investments in local bridges, but officials don’t expect to see the problem go away overnight. Projects take a while to get off the ground – often a few years before construction ever begins – so the number of structurally deficient crossings remains high in those states.
Colorado is one of only a handful of states with roughly the same share of structurally-deficient bridges as its localities. Amy Cole, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, cited the approximately $3.2 million the agency awarded local bridge improvements on top of $6.3 million in federal dollars. Still, the amount isn’t much considering the cost of a typical bridge replacement.
Some groups fear the condition of local bridges could further deteriorate with changes Congress approved in the transportation reauthorization bill last year.
The legislation eliminated the Highway Bridge Program and consolidated it with other programs into the much broader National Highway Performance Program (NHPP). Only roads part of the federal highway system are NHPP-eligible, leaving about three-quarters of bridges without a dedicated federal funding source. Off-system bridges, the bulk of which localities own, still receive grants via the Surface Transportation Program, but they’re now competing with more projects.
“There’s less funding available to many local communities who take care of their bridges and build new infrastructure to accommodate growth,” said Nick Donohue, Transportation for America's policy director.
The bill does give states the option to shift up to half of NHPP funding to other programs. It’s too early to tell, though, the extent to which they’ll redirect funds to fix locally-owned bridges.
“States do have flexibility to address this change,” Donohue said. “It will be interesting to see if they use that flexibility to help these local communities.”
Select a state below to view its 2012 bridge inspection data. State totals include state toll roads and state parks. Local bridge totals include counties, cities, towns, local parks, other local agencies and local tolls. Bridges less than 20 feet long are not inspected.