Drive with care over those 151,394 obsolete, unsafe bridges

Each day that I drive the 11 miles from my house to the university, I cross nine of America’s 601,396 bridges (as of 2008). Those nine are not likely to collapse. I have seen each replaced or rehabilitated in the last 10 years.

But you may not be as fortunate. You may need to drive across one or more of the 151,394 bridges the federal Department of Transportation lists as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. That’s 25 percent of American bridges. But fear not: Bridges are becoming safer. There were 3,930 fewer such bridges in the United States in 2008 than in 2007.

Whew. That’s a relief. At this rate, America will have no unsafe or obsolete bridges in only 153 years.

The repair and replacement rate of deficient or obsolete U.S. bridges is rising, however. According to DOT statistics, the number of lousy bridges has been reduced by 14,087 since 2000, an average of only 1,565 a year. So maybe (you remember, of course, all that talk about those shovel-ready stimulus projects?) that repair rate will increase, and we will have licked our bad bridge problem in only 100 years.

That’s assuming, of course, Congress will shell out enough money to fix them, either in 10 years or 100 years.

I’m not expert on deciphering federal budgets, but, according to the DOT, a total of about $21 billion has been appropriated for the federal Highway Bridge Program from 2005 to 2009 to repair or replace deficient bridges, an annual average of just over $4 billion.

That’s a lot of money, I suppose. But it’s not enough. Here’s what the American Society of Civil Engineers says:

Simply maintaining the current overall level of bridge conditions—that is, not allowing the backlog of deficient bridges to grow—would require a combined investment from the public and private sectors of $650 billion over 50 years, according to AASHTO, for an average annual investment level of $13 billion. The cost of eliminating all existing bridge deficiencies as they arise over the next 50 years is estimated at $850 billion in 2006 dollars, equating to an average annual investment of $17 billion. [emphasis added]

But, at the moment, fixing bridges has fallen off the national radar — and that of politicians in Washington, D.C. They’re thinking about jobs, the economy, immigration, the Gulf oil spill and, of course, getting re-elected (but not necessarily in that order).

Fixing bridges is not high on President Obama’s agenda — unless repairs will directly create jobs. On the White House website, “transportation” is listed last on a separate page of “additional issues.” Improving the economy takes precedence over safety-driven bridges issues. Increasing jobs leads to re-election; merely fixing bridges because that saves lives is trumped.

Examining the website of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure finds no sense of urgency, either. In fact, the only bill before the committee that would deal with bridge reconstruction and repair — The Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009 — was unveiled 13 months ago and is still stuck in committee. It is sweeping in what it wishes to do; thus, it is sweeping in its cost. Despite its portentous listing in the executive summary of all the unsafe transportation entities in America, fixing the economy, not rendering the unsafe as safe, is paramount: “Together, this $500 billion investment will create or sustain approximately six million family-wage jobs.”

The economy, of course, is ill. (Well, for Main Street, it seems, not Wall Street.) Many argue that infrastructure spending would add desperately needed jobs.

So why’s that 775-page bill stuck in committee?

On the Senate side, a review of the past year’s press releases of the Committee on Science, Commerce & Transportation rarely reveals concern about the state of the nation’s bridges. Only a release touting Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller, chair, praising the TIGER grant program appears. TIGER, short for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, received $1.5 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for about 50 nationwide transportation projects. But … the senator notes that “the Department of Transportation (DOT) received 1,380 applications requesting $56.5 billion in funding for surface transportation projects.” Who will choose who gets what and how?

To be fair, let’s note that in May 2009 Rockefeller introduced S. 1036, the Federal Surface Transportation Policy and Planning Act of 2009. The goal? “To establish national purposes and goals for Federal surface transportation activities and programs and create a national surface transportation plan.” The bill still has only one sponsor — its author, Rockefeller. It has been parked in committee for 14 months.

Again, why is it stuck in committee?

Shall we wait for another I-35W collapse to motivate Congress to act on the nation’s bridges? That produced media coverage galore and plenty of presidential candidate rhetoric.

The picture at left shows an 8-foot hole on I-44 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. According to Tulsa World reporters Matt Barnard and Gavin Off, this is “the second time in three years [that] a section of an east Tulsa interstate bridge crumbled …, sending chunks of concrete to a slope below and damaging several vehicles.”

The paper reported:” The 122-foot steel span, built in 1958, is rated as structurally deficient, according to the Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inventory database. Its deck is rated in serious condition.” Fortunately, the bridge is scheduled for replacement. One bad bridge down; 151,393 to go.

Some money in the president’s stimulus package was intended to deal with infrastructure repairs — such as that needed by bridges. One critic, however, believes that’s money ill spent, that the nation needs transformative economic investments to allow it to be more competitive in the global economy. Eighteen months ago, former governer and john turned CNN huckster Eliot Spitzer wrote in Slate, under the headline “Robots, Not Roads“:

The “off the shelf” infrastructure projects that can be funded immediately and provide immediate demand-side stimulus are almost by definition not the transformative investments we really need. Paving roads, repairing bridges that need refurbishing, and accelerating existing projects are all good and necessary, but not transformative. These projects by and large are building or patching the same economy with the same flaws that got us where we are.

He has a point, perhaps. But a transformed economy still needs to move people and material from point A to point B safely and efficiently. That transformed economy needs a healthy work force that drinks clean water, eats well from a safe and efficient food production and distribution system, and has effective, cost-efficient waste disposal systems and airport and port facilities that allow safe, effective transportation of people and materials. The nation’s energy infrastructure, too, needs considerable repair and replacement of key facilities.

This post focuses on bridges. But, in addition to these other deficiencies listed, we have dams, levees, pipelines, sewage systems and, of course, roads that must be transformed before they can contribute to Spitzer’s dreams of transformative investments in the American economy.

Most importantly, in what structurally sound public primary and secondary school buildings will teachers train those capable of fashioning Spitzer’s “transformative investments”?

Right now, the nation’s infrastructure is severely strained in any way imaginable. The bill is due, and it amounts to $2.2 trillion, according to ASCE.

Time for Congress to pay up.

photo credits:
Interstate-35W bridge collapse: Scott Cohen, Reuters
Tulsa bridge hole: Matt Barnard, Tulsa World

25 replies »

    • I guess I sort of feel relatively insulated – I live in a fairly big city (Denver) and I imagine that most of these deathtraps are out in the woods. You know, backwaters like Minneapolis. Never mind – I’m going to ride my bike from here one out.


      Great analysis. Frightening, but great. Anybody want to get a pool going on where the next one will drop into the water?

  1. Privatise the bridges and let the owners maintain them, and charge for use. We did this here in the UK with the M6 Toll, and it’s a dream to drive.

  2. Ahhhhh, yes. In Denver, my money’s on the next collapse being the Evans Avenue bridge over Santa Fe Drive. You can feel that mofo wobbling when cars are on it.

    • Glad I don’t have to go down that way very often. I have driven over it, though, and you’re right – that is one more dangerous looking stack of cement.

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  4. You are not seeing the up side to leaving those bridges to deteriorate. Failure of the bridges is the preferred outcome. Every bridge that falls is one that can’t be counted as deficient. It also eliminates the need to maintain long sections of roads. And anyone who dies when they fall, or drives off thinking it is still there, is a name that won’t be filling the welfare rolls or competing against you for a job. Enough bridges fall and we could largely eliminate the backlog of defective bridges, save significant amounts roads, and move toward full employment. It’s all good.

  5. Glad to see you take this on. It already made its way through Treehugger to the Care2 newsboard. Infrastructure failure is scary.
    But what that fellow said about what they did in the UK for the motorways has been done in some countries for a utility whose failure will hurt like it would in a war zone : water treatment. It’s not the failure to use chlorine that’s the scariest, though. It’s not a disinfectant anyway. It’s the spreading of sewage on crops, ditto coal ash which is full of radioactive toxins, and all this while frackking has crazed the bedrock so that the compounds used in ‘stimulation’ and gas permeate all. Privatized water delivery will arrive after the crash of budgets for public facilities has its inevitable effect.

  6. Outstanding writing!
    Now, nothing gets a lawmaker’s attention like help getting elected.
    It’s time for every one of us to join a local political committee in their municipality.
    The purpose of a political committee is not to promote ideological positions, it is to get endorsed candidates elected. You want your state or federal congressman or senator to listen to you? Make sure he sees and knows you out there working the polls and the phones to get him elected.
    Make it a pleasant task, smiling and greeting your neighbors at the polls. If you’re not willing to make the effort, don’t complain.

  7. Opit,
    Coal ash is inert. It’s just the ash left from burning nature’s own decomposed and compressed plants. Any possible undesirable material is so infinitesimal as to be of no effect on anything except the minds of non-scientific people who thrive on supermarket tabloids.
    We’ve been using sewage biosolids for agricultural purposes for over half a century. You may have conditioned the soil around your house with Milorganite – sewage sludge from Milwaukee. Crops on undried biosolids produce twice as much food because of the mild fertilizer value, 4-4-0, and the irrigation (70% – 80% water). We’ve been consuming healthy food for decades so fertilized with no deaths. Recent salad vegetable contamination was from untreated sewage directly from farm workers. (How many hours can you go without peeing and pooping?) Compared to the produce fertilized with the product of chemical company laboratories, there’s no comparison, is there? Which produce would you rather eat?

    • SkyKing – your information on coal ash is incorrect. It’s quite hazardous, given that it’s got arsenic, antimony, chromium, mercury, uranium, and selenium (at a minimum) well above safe levels. I recommend that you read the following guest post from Tom Yulsman here at S&R for more information: Coal waste dumps: ticking toxic time bombs. I worked with a guy who was doing radiation testing of electronics and found that their geiger counter was being messed with by the radioactive decay from the coal ash mixed into the wall board. Not necessarily at dangerous levels mind you, but it’s still not something to mess with and it certainly doesn’t qualify as “inert.”

      As far as using human waste for fertilizer, while I’m generally in agreement that it’s a good idea, it only makes sense if we can extract the excess pharmaceuticals and toxins that we, as apex predators, have in our excrement. Lex (our resident plant expert) made a comment about the heavy metals in human waste with regard to using the compost from composting toilets on gardens here, although he may have a different opinion if we’re talking processed waste.