On Thursday evening, an Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state collapsed, sending two cars into the water and injuring three people. So far no fatalities have been reported. Authorities don’t yet know what caused the collapse.
Another bridge also collapsed in Texas on Thursday after catching fire. The fire burned too hot for firefighters to put out, so they let it burn. It was a railway bridge over the Colorado river and repairing it could cost $10 million.
The bridge in Washington was listed as “functionally obsolete,” which does not mean it was considered structurally deficient or unsafe, but rather that it was built to standards that are no longer used and may have had inadequate lane widths or vertical clearance. As Yahoo! News reported, the bridge was built in 1955 and had a sufficiency rating of 57.4 out of 100, “well below the statewide average rating of 80.”
Unfortunately, these bridge collapses are not isolated incidents. There are 759 bridges in the state that have a lower sufficiency rating than the one that fell apart. More than 350 bridges in Washington are considered structurally deficient, meaning they require repair or replacement of a component, although are not necessarily considered in danger of collapse. More than 1,500 are considered functionally obsolete.
Overall, one in nine of the country’s bridges are rated structurally deficient by the American Society of Civil Engineer’s yearly report card in American infrastructure. The average age for the nation’s bridges is 42 years. This netted the country a C+ rating on its bridges, which is mediocre. To upgrade all of the deficient ones, the U.S. would need to invest $20.5 billion annually.
Yet only $12.8 billion is being spent on bridge updates currently. The country’s infrastructure only got a total grade of D+, a poor rating. Overall, the country needs to spend $3.6 trillion by 2020 to bring it into the 21st century.
Investment, however, has been moving in the opposite direction. Public spending on infrastructure as a percentage of GDP has dropped dramatically in recent years, falling to the lowest level in two decades, as Joe Weisenthal pointed out. The U.S. is only expected to spend about a third of what the report card calls for by 2020.
While the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or 2009 stimulus bill, made infrastructure improvements, that money has mostly been used up. But as that package of spending proved, investment in infrastructure not only upgrades roads and bridges to make them safer, it also puts people back to work and helps improve the economy.
President Obama has proposed further stimulus spending on infrastructure, but his proposals have been repeatedly blocked by Republicans in Congress. Yet America’s borrowing costs are extremely low and deficits are shrinking, so there is no time like the present to invest in upgrading our infrastructure.
A previous version of this story stated that the bridge collapse occurred in Seattle. It happened in Mount Vernon, Washington.