February 20, 2017 4:00 AM, EST

56,000 US Bridges Deficient

States Prioritize Interstate Spans, ARTBA Report Shows
West Virginia DOT

This story appears in the Feb. 20 print edition of Transport Topics.

About 56,000 bridges nationwide, or 9%, were deemed structurally deficient last year, including those heavily used by trucks, an analysis by the group representing the country’s road builders determined.

Along interstates, which are primary corridors for trucks, approximately 1,900 bridges are structurally deficient, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

Its report, published Feb. 15, stemmed from a review of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2016 National Bridge Inventory data.

“The structurally deficient percentage, or number, is easy to hold on to, but it’s not the entire story. It doesn’t portray the entire need or accurately portray the aging infrastructure and some of the challenges that we have,” Alison Premo Black, ARTBA’s chief economist behind the report, told Transport Topics.

The report also indicated that 173,919, or 28%, of all bridges are more than 50 years old and have not undergone major reconstruction. In 2015, 10% of bridges were deemed deficient, which does not equate to unsafe. State transportation departments have stressed thousands of bridges on interstates and in rural areas need significant repairs, according to the report.

ARTBA determined the top 14 most-traveled deficient bridges are in California, where 1,388 out of 25,431 bridges are structurally deficient — accounting for 5.5%, compared with 7.9% in 2015. Bridges on the West Coast tend to be not as old as their East Coast counterparts.

If placed side-by-side, structurally deficient bridges would stretch 1,276 miles, or about half the distance from New York to Los Angeles.

The trucking industry, which leads in freight movement, has long sounded the alarm about the nation’s infrastructure.

“There is a massive need for infrastructure investment, and it will pay off several times over,” American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear said recently. “Doing nothing is completely unacceptable.”

Black emphasized the need for combining federal dollars with state and local funds to advance big-ticket modernization projects as investments in infrastructure projects have been shown to lead to economic growth.

“I think there is huge opportunity, not to say that it won’t be easy — it’s going to take the political will to get it done,” she said. “We know this is a priority for the Trump administration and can Congress make it a priority, as well.”

The states with the highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges were Rhode Island at 24.9%, Iowa at 20.5%, Pennsylvania at 19.8%, South Dakota at 19.6%, and West Virginia at 17.3%.

The states with the most structurally deficient bridges were Iowa with 4,968, Pennsylvania with 4,506, Oklahoma with 3,460, Missouri with 3,195 and Nebraska with 2,361, according to ARTBA’s analysis.

In Rhode Island, state officials identified repair needs for 724 of their 772 bridges at an estimated cost of $3 billion. Of those, 192 have been classified as structurally deficient, and about one-third, or 242 bridges, are classified as functionally obsolete, meaning their designs are outdated.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) cited the state’s network of structurally deficient bridges when she proceeded with a plan to toll trucks as a way to fund repairs.

Transportation officials in Iowa identified 14,829 out of their 24,184 bridges in need of repairs. Four percent of those bridges, or 1,039, are classified as functionally obsolete.

ARTBA’s report serves as another reminder of the need to invest in bridges and other infrastructure projects, Sarah Kline, a transportation fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank, told Transport Topics on Feb. 15.

“I think the states will continue trying to figure things out, figure out how to invest in infrastructure and do what they need to do,” Kline said.

“If the federal government doesn’t act, that makes it way harder for the states because they have to fill a much bigger gap. So, hopefully everyone will continue the momentum on this issue and figure out different things,” she added.

In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s bridges a C+ grade. The engineers noted one in nine bridges were structurally deficient. With an average age of 42 years, a significant number of bridges outlasted their service life, ASCE concluded. By 2040, the engineers projected the cost of maintaining bridges will grow to $5.1 trillion if spending stays at current levels. The group plans to release an infrastructure report card that will address bridges March 9.

Infrastructure observers argue the collapse of a bridge, as was the case of the I-5 bridge in Washington state in 2013, or a severe bottleneck, such as the “bridgegate” scandal that year at the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, helped to raise awareness about massive amounts of freight traffic traversing the nation’s infrastructure.

Surface transportation networks deemed deficient or obsolete contribute to congestion, according to stakeholders reviewing the issue. The American Transportation Research Institute found that in 2014, highway congestion cost the trucking industry about $50 billion.

Staff Reporter Jonathan S. Reiskin contributed to this story.