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GAO: 1 in 4 U.S. Bridges Deficient

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

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Recent bridge collapses in Washington State, Missouri and elsewhere attest to more bottom-line bad news just delivered to Congress: A significant share of U.S. bridges is in dicey condition.

The overall condition of America's 607,380 bridges has shown only limited improvement in the past decade, and "a substantial number of bridges remain in poor condition," a Government Accountability Office official recently told a Senate subcommittee.

MO Railway Bridge Collapse
NTSB

Two days after the I-5 bridge collapse in Washington State, a Missouri highway overpass caved in when a freight train collision rammed one of the structure’s supporting columns.

As of December 2012, according to Phillip R. Herr, the GAO's Managing Director for Physical Infrastructure:

  • One in four bridges on U.S. roadways was classified as deficient;
  • Some bridges are structurally deficient and have one or more components in poor condition; and
  • Others are functionally obsolete and may no longer be adequate for the traffic they serve.

Those and other findings are contained in "Transportation Infrastructure: Limited Improvement in Bridge Conditions over the Past Decade, but Financial Challenges Remain," an 11-page statement that Herr delivered Thursday (June 13) to the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies.

Improvements Cited

Herr offered his assessment in the wake of the May 23 partial collapse of the Skagit River Bridge. A Missouri bridge partially collapsed two days later in a train derailment.

Herr's testimony addressed the current condition of the nation’s bridges and the impact of federal funding for bridges; it also offered a preliminary look at recent changes to the surface transportation and bridge program made by MAP 21, which was signed into law in July 2012.

MAP 21 consolidated a number of highway programs, including the former Highway Bridge Program.

Herr did offer some good news in his testimony, which drew on data gathered earlier. For example, he said, the number of deficient bridges has decreased since 2002, although the number of bridges has increased.

In addition, he said, the average sufficiency rating of all bridges (deficient and non-deficient) increased to 79 from 75 on the rating's 100-point scale between 1998 and 2007.

Skagit River Bridge
Twitter / ByManuelValdes

The Interstate 5 bridge partially collapsed on May 23 after a truck hit part of the overhead structure. The National Transportation Safety Board was investigating both that and the Missouri incident.

But much work remains, Herr said.

Measuring Performance

One problem GAO found: Despite constant calls for increased infrastructure spending, it is actually difficult to measure the impact of federal investment in bridges.

Bridge ownership is fairly evenly split between states (48 percent) and local government agencies (50 percent). State agencies are responsible for 77 percent of the nation’s bridge deck area. The federal government owns less than 2 percent of the nation’s bridges, primarily on federally owned land.

And while the Federal Highway Administration tracks a portion of bridge spending on a state-by-state basis, the data do not include state spending on bridges located on local roads and most local governments’ spending on bridges. That makes it difficult to determine the federal contribution to overall bridge expenditures.
 
Herr's testimony offered no new recommendations but noted that the GAO reported in 2008 that the federal bridge program "needed clearer goals and performance measures to create a more focused and sustainable program."
 
The Road Ahead
 
The report found several challenges in the years to come.
 
"[T]he nation’s inventory of bridges continues to age, including some considered to require costly, large-scale bridge projects," Herr said.
 
"As many of the nation’s bridges built in the 1960s and 1970s age, the number in need of repair or rehabilitation is expected to increase."
GAO chart
GAO

The report's bright spot: The number of deficient bridges decreased, although the overall number of bridges increased.

Meanwhile, state officials have said for years that certain mega-bridge projects—often the most traveled, urban bridges on interstate corridors—are too expensive to be pursued with bridge program funds alone.

Some of these projects will cost more than $500 million, GAO noted. For that reason, it said, Congress and the administration need to agree on a long-term plan for funding surface transportation.

"Transportation officials in Washington state and other states we visited acknowledged that existing bridge mega projects could easily exhaust a state’s entire federal-aid apportionment for many years, potentially to the detriment of all other bridge needs in that state," Herr said.

"Without agreement on a long-term plan for funding surface transportation, program fiscal sustainability remains a challenge."

 

   

Tagged categories: Bridges; Government; Health and safety; Infrastructure; Maintenance programs

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