Tuesday, February 27, 2001

If you rumble across any of America’s 688,417 bridges on any given day, perhaps you’d be interested in this frank assessment from Bill Fay, chief executive of the American Highway Users Alliance: “The government treats bridges and the rest of the infrastructure with the same attention it might give a pencil purchased by the Agriculture Department.” Indeed nearly 38,000 U.S. bridges are “basically inoperable” and more than 19,500 others require quick “corrective action,” according to analyses conducted by reporter August Gribbin of the Federal Highway Administration’s database of the National Bridge Inventory and reported on the front page of Tuesday’s editions of The Washington Times.

More than 3,800 of the nation’s bridges are “intolerable,” or high-priority spans, because they are structurally deteriorating. Hundreds of such bridges are in the District, Maryland and Virginia, including one that carries 117,000 vehicles each day along Interstate 295/Kenilworth Avenue that must be replaced. One of the worst is on Laurel-Bowie Road in Prince George’s County and passes over railroad tracks.

Highway officials cannot plead ignorance, as various and detailed evaluations over the years have described the dangers. Taxpayers, on the other hand, can cite them for misplaced spending priorities. For example, the FHA’s files show the federal government is the biggest laggard when it comes to replacing faulty structures, and that the National Park Service, which is responsible for 914 badly maintained bridges, is the “biggest laggard’s biggest laggard,” Mr. Gribbin reported. The man who manages that roads program, Mark Hartsoe, sounds more like a D.C. official than a federal one when he says money, not mismanagement, is the heart of the bridge issue. “We actually focus our money on bridges at the sacrifice of our roads. But we have a $169 million backlog of bridge work and a $3.26 billion backlog on roads. By backlog, I mean money we need and don’t have.”

Highway officials’ revelations are startling given the huge surpluses reaped by federal, state and local governments in recent years. Congress authorized $20.4 billion in the fiscal 1998-2003 Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program. Yet nearly one in three U.S. bridges is either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. It sounds like someone needs a serious wake-up call before more lives are lost.

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