The Problems Behind Our Bridges and How to Fix Them

Share By Megan Anderle

More than one in nine, or 11 percent, of all bridges across the United States are structurally deficient, according to a 2013 report by the nonprofit Transportation for America. Most were built decades ago and have seen little to no maintenance.

Bridges are designed to last 50 years before major overhaul or replacement, but the average age of an American bridge is well past middle age at 43 years, the report states. Structurally deficient bridges have an average age of 65 years.

“These bridges were built 50, 60, 70 years ago, and the bottom line is the states just don’t have the money to repair them,” said Ken Philmus, senior vice president in the government and transportation group at Xerox.

“Bridges are just one aspect of transportation the state has to find funding for, and it’s constantly being prioritized. Many states do the worst bridges first,” Philmus added.

Officials strive to rehabilitate bridges that pose an imminent threat to the public as quickly as possible, said Kent Harries, a professor of Structural Engineering and Mechanics at the University of Pittsburgh who studies bridges. “[Officials] shut down the bridge very quickly if there’s any question that there is an imminent problem,” he pointed out.

But other bridges that need service often sit on the back burner until they reach the same hazardous level of near-collapse, because other transportation issues take priority for funding.

Pennsylvania’s Solution

While the majority of structurally deficient bridges exist in the Northeast, Pennsylvania is the worst offender, with a stunning 25 percent of the state’s 22,667 bridges considered deficient.

However, the state has made strides in recent years, reducing the number of deficient bridges by more than 8 percent, according to Transportation for America’s report.

“We had a stimulus (the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) that helped repair many of the bridges, so we took a bite out of the pie because of the influx, but that money went away,” Harries said.  “While we’re taking bridges off the list each year, many more are added back on it as they need repairs. The list is not static. All the bridges are aging.”

Looking to the future, Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation (PennDOT) is offering the private sector a partnership to repair some of the state’s most defective bridges, and contractors have a February 7 (2014) deadline to apply to be considered. The Rapid Bridge Replacement Project requires chosen contractors to design, build, finance and maintain a portfolio of replacement bridges across the state.

PennDOT is aiming for at least 500 single and double span bridges to be repaired or rebuilt in less than five years. Not all bridges will be under construction at once; contractors will coordinate with communities and the state to avoid congestion.

Contractors will be compensated through an availability payment structure over the course of 25 to 35 years. Payment is based on performance; when contractors complete a set number of bridges, they will be partially compensated, according to PennDOT spokesperson Erin Waters-Trasatt. The money will come from the transportation department’s regular construction budget each year.

While 500 bridges in five years sounds ambitious, the selected bridges are all of similar design and construction standards, which will help contractors capitalize on cost savings. Previously, PennDOT paid for the design and construction of bridges one at a time, a slow and expensive process.

Having contractors maintain the bridge for years after it’s built, potentially up to 40 years depending on the contract terms, is another cost-effective measure.

Interest from contractors has been hot; a presentation on the program in November drew representatives of nearly 150 companies, including contractors, engineers and financial organizations, according to The Morning Call.

“We held two industry forums and have seen a lot of interest from contracting entities, and, anecdotally, we’re hearing they’re already establishing their teams. Because the bridges span the state, many local contractors will complete much of the work,” Waters-Trasatt said.

Public-Private Partnerships

Other states, including Florida and Massachusetts, have turned to the private sector to fix their beleaguered bridges as well, but officials say this isn’t the silver bullet to the issue.

“The money has to come from somewhere to pay the contractors back. Tolls can cover it in some cases, but it’s very hard to impose tolls at a level to make the projects pay for themselves and at the same time provide profit,” said David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation for America.

Philmus agreed, adding that taking money out of the budget to each year for a private-public partnership is a tremendous cost.

Other solutions for repairing bridges

Philmus said one possible way states can fund infrastructure projects is by increasing gas taxes or implementing a vehicle-miles traveled fee (VMT) on drivers, this way the people who use roads and bridges the most would pay for their maintenance and replacement.

“We need to find a more stable, continuous revenue source that can meet the ongoing and growing needs of the states going forward since the revenues from existing gas taxes is in decline due to less vehicle miles traveled, greatly improved fuel economy and the growth of alternate fuel vehicles. Mileage-based user fees (VMT’s) are an alternative that is gaining much attention as a potential substitute for gas taxes.” Philmus said.

The fact that cars get unprecedented gas mileage is a significant contributing factor to the nation’s bridges problem — drivers are traveling farther distances with less gas than ever before — resulting in less money being collected through the gas tax, which funds infrastructure projects. Politicians on both sides have fought hard to keep the gas tax fixed for decades, so raising it would be a tough battle to win. VMTs, on the other hand, are comparable to tolls, and even motorists who use electric cars, which require no gas, would contribute to paying for the roads they drive on.

“States have had to make up for their shortfalls in gas taxes by trying to find money in the general budget,” Goldberg said. “This time the hole is too big to do that.”

Goldberg proposes allocating a portion of government transportation funding specifically for infrastructure maintenance. Such a law used to exist, but Congress eliminated that legislation and, in its place, passed a more general transportation-funding bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21). The new law essentially forces infrastructure maintenance to compete for funding with a host of other transportation issues that state DOTs deem high priority.

“We were disappointed in 2012 when Congress re-wrote the transportation funding. There’s a lot of pressures and projects that are called for, and having a dedicated fund made it a lot easier to fix bridges,” Goldberg said.

Though opinions on solutions to the nation’s ailing bridges vary, everyone can agree that something needs to be done. After all, as Goldberg reminds us, they’re the most efficient way to cross a body of water, a chasm, or another road.

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