The United States has more than 63,000 bridges that are structurally deficient and in need of significant repairs, according to an analysis of government data by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA). Drivers cross these bridges 250 millions times each day. They are all at least 39 years old except for one.
The 250 most heavily used bridges that are structurally deficient are on interstate highways, many in California.
These bridges are not necessarily imminently unsafe or about to collapse. But a bridge will be classified as structurally deficit and in need of repair if it is rated four or below on a scale of zero to nine by state transportation inspections of their decks and support structures. The ARTBA wants signs posted at these bridges to let drivers know they’re in need of repairs. “Sometimes bridges on this list do fail. The I-35 bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed in 2007 — that bridge was on the structurally deficient list,” Alison Premo Black, an economist with group, told the Washington Post.
And there have been other bridge collapses in recent years. In May of last year, an Interstate 5 bridge over a river collapsed in Washington state, sending two cars into the water and injuring three people. A few days before that, a railway bridge over the Colorado river caught fire and collapsed, and the costs of repair were estimated at $10 million. In November 2012, a New Jersey bridge built in 1873 collapsed for the second time in four years, derailing a train that was carrying vinyl chloride into a creek. And in July of that year, a railroad bridge collapsed in Chicago, derailing a coal train an killing a couple.
The bridge that collapsed in Washington wasn’t even structurally deficient; it was listed as “functionally obsolete,” a higher rating that means it was built to standards that are no longer used. Among the 63,000 structurally deficient bridges, the Associated Press found that nearly 8,000 are also designated “fracture critical,” meaning that a bridge doesn’t have redundant protections and is at risk of collapse if one vital piece fails. They carry more than 29 million drivers a day.
Overall, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the country just a C+ rating on its bridges, which is mediocre. It estimates that to upgrade all of the deficient bridges, the country would have to spend more than $20 billion each year. On a larger scale, to upgrade all of the country’s crumbling roads, waterways, bridges, and other infrastructure systems, it says the country would need to spend $3.6 trillion by 2020.
But the country has pulled back dramatically on infrastructure spending in recent years. Worse, the Highway Trust Fund, which has given $89 billion in support to bridge construction over the last decade, will become insolvent by this summer without any Congressional action. That will cut off federal support for any new state transportation projects starting in October, despite providing approximately 45 percent of the money states spend on improvements. The fund has traditionally relied on revenue from the gas tax, but conservatives have opposed raising it for two decades.
President Obama has proposed a four-year plan that would increase infrastructure spending by about $90 billion, including replenishing the Highway Trust Fund with $150 billion with an additional $600 million to fund a new grant competition for innovative projects. But even if those amounts were to pass, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed for all the upgrades. Yet these are smart investments: a study found that every dollar invested in infrastructure returns at least $2 to state economies.