Report: One in Nine Bridges in America "Structurally Deficient, Potentially Dangerous"

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(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) Almost 70,000 bridges and overpasses in America are in need of serious maintenance or they could become dangerous according to a report released Wednesday by Transportation for America.

The transportation reform coalition study, The Fix We're in For: The State of the Nation's Bridges, found that "despite billions of dollars in annual federal, state and local funds directed toward the maintenance of existing bridges, 69,223 bridges – representing more than 11 percent of total highway bridges in the U.S. – are classified as “structurally deficient,” according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHA)."

Structurally deficient bridges require significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement and can be subject to speed and weight restrictions, but they are not unsafe. President-Elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Andy Herman, pointed out, "the nation has a very efficient bridge inspection system ... every bridge is inspected every two years." Unsafe bridges are shut down or emergency repairs are immediately ordered.

But the slew of structurally deficient bridges pose a major financial burden on federal and state governments, and will increase in need as time goes on. The study points to the age of America's infrastructure: the average age of an American bridge is 42 years-old. "I think we all know that America's infrastructure is decidedly middle aged," said James Corless, Director of Transportation for America, in a press conference Wednesday. "Most, when they were built, were built for about a lifespan of 50." Many bridges are already older than that. Corless says, that suggests the problem will grow in the years ahead "if we don't address this soon."

The report looked at FHA data on the nation's nearly 600,000 bridges and overpasses. Transportation for America cites FHA statistics estimating $70.9 billion needed to address the backlog of deficient bridges, "far more than what we are currently spending," according to Corless.

Herman added, "right now we're just not spending enough on our bridges. If you look at the current budget that is actually being spent, it's about $10.5 billion per year on our bridges." He cited FHA estimates that call for about $17 billion in annual bridge maintenance spending.

If you want to know how your state or county stack up, in bridge maintenance Transportation for America has mapped all the structurally deficient bridges on their website. In the map above, you can see the New York area, with strings of structurally deficient bridges along the Harlem River and the Cross Bronx Expressway.

Pennsylvania wins the dubious distinction of leading the nation in percent of deficient bridges at 26.5 percent. The average age of bridges there is already above 50. However, Corless points out the danger of structurally deficient bridges may be more acutely felt in rural areas where there are fewer bridges and fewer alternative routes to deficient bridges.

If a bridge falls below a level of structural deficiency it will get weight limits posted that could require trucks to be rerouted long distances, which can hamper local business growth.

The study argues strongly for more spending on maintenance, as Congress prepares to debate a transportation spending bill in a time of fiscal cutbacks. The transportation reform group argues that spending now will save money later. Herman relayed a calculation from California's state transportation agency to support the point: "CalTran says for every $1 they spend on maintenance of their bridges, they save $16 in the future on rebuilding, rehabilitation, and repair." That may not be enough to motivate a belt-tightening Congress to dole out an additional $7 billion a year on bridge maintenance.

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