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US Bridge Report: Deficiency on the Rise

Monday, November 21, 2016

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An annual look at the condition and safety of American bridges shows that more are in questionable condition than were last year—and funding is still on state bridge engineers’ minds as their most dire need.

The 2016 Better Roads Bridge Inventory, put together by Equipment World, shows some discouraging news overall: After a decrease between 2012 and 2014, the number of structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges in the country is back on the rise.

Structurally deficient bridge
Oregon Department of Transportation, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After a decrease between 2012 and 2014, the number of structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges in the country is back on the rise.

The increase in bridges classed as “SD/FO” is led by interstate and state-owned spans, while the number of SD/FO bridges run by cities and counties actually decreased from 2015 numbers.

“Structurally deficient” bridges are generally those that have been closed to traffic, restricted to only light vehicles, or require rehabilitation, because of structural issues. “Functionally obsolete” bridges may not be experiencing structural issues, but simply weren’t built to contemporary standards.

Numbers on the Rise

In 2012, 22.5 percent of all American bridges were classed as SD/FO, according to the report. The percentage dropped in 2013 and 2014, to a low of 20.5 percent, before climbing again in 2015 and 2016. This year, 21.7 percent of bridges in the country were given the label.

Split by jurisdiction, a greater percentage of city- and county-owned bridges are in the SD/FO category: 22.7 percent of those bridges fit the label, where 20.7 percent of state and interstate bridges are SD/FO. But state and federal SD/FO bridges have been on the rise again since 2014, where cities and counties made a dent in the bridge issue in 2016, bringing the percentage of their bridges that are SD/FO down from 23.1 percent in 2015.

Best, Worst States for Bridges

The District of Columbia holds the distinction of having the greatest percentage of SD/FO bridges of any state or district in the nation, with 174 of its 254 bridges—that’s 68.5 percent—fitting the bill. Rhode Island was the other state with more than half of its bridges deemed to be SD/FO; 52 percent of its 773 bridges qualified.

Top marks went to Arizona, with only 9 percent of its 7,714 bridges classed as SD/FO. The remainder of the top five states in terms of low SD/FO numbers this year were: Minnesota, Utah, New Mexico and Wisconsin.

Desire for Funding

Of the 51 state and district departments of transportation surveyed, representatives of 26 responded to a question asking what one thing would help the most in improving their state’s bridges. Half of those said additional funding was the key. That’s down from 60 percent the previous year, though it was still the most common answer.

bridge inspection
Dougthaler, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After funding, the most commonly cited factor that could help states’ bridges is preservation and maintenance.

The report notes that some states recently started dedicated programs to help fund bridge work, which may account for the apparent improvement. Nebraska, for example, unveiled a program in which the state matches county funds specifically for bridge work. South Dakota also began a program to specifically fund bridge repairs.

After funding, the most commonly cited factor that could help states’ bridges is preservation and maintenance. Other factors include having a bridge asset management system, more staffing or accelerated bridge construction.

FAST Act Funds

The survey says 46.7 percent of respondents believe the FAST Act, passed last year by the federal government to provide stable, multi-year highway funding, has had a positive impact on bridges at the state level.

One official, from South Dakota DOT, told the publication that the FAST Act doesn’t contain dedicated funds for bridge work, and requires compliance with complex federal guidelines, which slow work.

About the Report

Equipment World has prepared the Better Roads Bridge Inventory annually since 1979. The report is based on a survey of departments of transportation of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. When states do not respond, the survey uses Federal Highway Administration numbers for quantitative data.


Tagged categories: Bridges; Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); Funding; Government; Infrastructure

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