Saturday, August 4, 2007

The collapse of an eight-lane interstate bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis that was under repair reminds us that 30 percent of America’s almost 500,000 bridges are categorized as “deficient” and in “urgent need of repair.” The Iraq and Afghan wars have cost more than half a trillion dollars so far. The two conflicts are running at the rate of $12 billion a month, or $400 million a day. The bill for urgent work on the nation’s bridges is estimated at $80 billion.

The general need for repairs of the nation’s bridges has been reported scores of times by all media. Congress and states seldom agree about their respective funding responsibilities. Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war shrunk funding for bridge repairs.

In 11 Northeastern states, 50 percent of bridges not only need urgent repairs but are not designed to handle current traffic levels. The situation is more acute in these states because of winter weather corrosion. Many of the bridges are 50 years or older.

In New York, the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883. The George Washington Bridge — the “GW” — is one of a network of spans that link New York’s five boroughs as well as the Big Apple and New Jersey. It was opened in 1931 and now carries 300,000 vehicles a day. New York State’s Department of Transportation anticipated spending $1 billion a year through 2010 on its bridges. Minor fixes for the 51-year-old Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson north of the GW are running $500 million. A new bridge with a commuter rail line would set back state and federal budgets $13 billion.

There is a constant race between the cost of building materials and the steady increase in traffic, especially trucks. New York State’s DOT projects the number of miles traveled in this one state alone at 180 billion in the next two decades, up from 137.5 billion today.

The Federal Highway Administration’s (FWA) Strategic Plan stated in 1998 it planned to decrease the percentage of deficient bridges to 25 percent by 2008. This, too, was a bridge too far. Research labs in the U.S. and abroad have developed a new generation of construction materials — glass, plastic and carbon — for bridges that will resist corrosion. But they are costly. China, which went from bicycles to automobiles and trucks in less than a generation, has been building new bridges with polymer composites.

Despite major renovations of America’s infrastructure, an estimated $1.6 trillion is still needed over five years to bring it to “safe standards.” Bridges, roads, railroads and waterways all have been shortchanged by the war on terror. Even before the September 11, 2001, attacks, a “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” graded 12 infrastructure categories at a D+ overall failure rate.

“The nation is failing to even maintain the substandard conditions we currently have,” said the report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers, “a dangerous trend that is affecting highway safety, as well as the health of the economy.” FHWA added in its own report card after the invasion of Iraq, “traffic congestion costs the economy $67.5 billion annually in lost productivity and wasted fuel…. The average rush hour grew more than 18 minutes” in three years ending in 2000. It has since added another 7 minutes.

At the very least, bridge deficiencies, or fixes alone, should be funded at the rate of $12 billion a year.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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