73,694 bridges in U.S. ‘deficient’

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WASHINGTON (AP) — More than 70,000 bridges across the country are rated structurally deficient like the span that collapsed in Minneapolis, and engineers estimate repairing them all would take at least a generation and cost more than $188 billion.

That works out to at least $9.4 billion a year over 20 years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Separately, the Federal Highway Administration has said addressing the backlog of needed bridge repairs would cost at least $55 billion. That was five years ago, with expectations of more deficiencies to come.

It’s money that Congress, the federal government and the states have so far been unable or unwilling to spend.

“We’re not doing what the engineers are saying we need to be doing,” said Gregory Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, an advocacy group representing a wide range of motorists.

“Unfortunately when you consistently underinvest in roads and bridges … this is the dangerous consequence,” Mr. Cohen said of Wednesday’s deadly Mississippi River bridge collapse in Minneapolis. He said engineers have estimated $75 billion a year is needed to keep highways and bridges from further deterioration, but that only around $60 billion a year is being provided.

As 2007 began, at least 73,694 of the nation’s 596,808 bridges, or about 12 percent, were classified as “structurally deficient,” Federal Highway Administration figures show. They include 816 built as recently as the early 1990s and 3,871 that are nearly a century old.

It’s not clear how many of those spans pose actual safety risks.

A bridge is typically judged structurally deficient if heavy trucks are banned from it or there are other weight restrictions, if it needs immediate work to stay open or if it’s closed. In any case, such a bridge is considered in need of considerable maintenance, rehabilitation or even replacement.

Congressional leaders say the number of bridges in need of repair is too high and the funding too low.

“We should look at this tragedy that occurred as a wake-up call for us. We have, all over the country, crumbling infrastructure,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, adding that Congress could use the 2008 spending bills to address the issue.

The federal government is now providing about $40 billion a year to improve and expand the nation’s highways and bridges. Industry advocates say that’s not enough even to maintain the infrastructure at its current level, and that number would have to rise by about $30 billion to bring about real improvement in aging, unsafe roads and bridges and in traffic congestion.

That’s not likely to happen because the main source of revenue for roads and bridges, the Federal Highway Trust Fund, is failing to keep up with spending demand. The 18.3 cents a gallon in federal taxes hasn’t changed since 1993, and the demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles could affect fuel consumption.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, most bridges in the U.S. Highway Bridge Inventory — 83 percent — are inspected every two years. About 12 percent, those in bad shape, are inspected annually, and 5 percent, those in very good shape, every four years.

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