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Bridge Problems Stir Federal Response

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

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WASHINGTON--States and localities can quickly appropriate funds for emergency repairs on their highways, bridges and tunnels, but what happens when the structure is federally owned?

Where do those repair funds come from, and how do you tap them quickly?

Those are the billion-dollar questions that officials in the nation's capital are scrambling to answer, amid emergency restrictions just slapped on one of the nation's best-known bridges.

The grand masonry, steel and stone arched Arlington Memorial Bridge spans the Potomac River and offers a ceremonial entrance to Washington, D.C., from Virginia.

Suddenly, however, needing millions of dollars in repairs and, soon, a $250 million overhaul, the 83-year-old bridge has become the poster child for "the most neglected portion of America’s outworn infrastructure—the priceless federal bridges and major transportation roads that are not a part of any state’s allocation."

National Parks Conservation Association/National Park Service

Severe corrosion on the Arlington Memorial Bridge, shown in 2014, has led to restrictions while the 83-year-old bridge undergoes emergency repairs. Those repairs are expected to cost $3 million and last six to nine months. The bridge also needs a $250 million overhaul.

That's the description by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia), who is sponsoring legislation to secure maintenance and rehabilitation funding for such structures.

Norton's "Save Our National Parks Transportation Act" (H2595), introduced June 1, would provide $460 million per year for federal and tribal projects that do not qualify for state allocations.

Need for Funds

The bill came on the heels of a May 28 decision by the National Park Service to restrict usage of the Arlington Memorial Bridge.

Acting on a Federal Highway Administration recommendation, the Park Service set a weight limit of 10 tons and closed curbside lanes and four feet of sidewalk along the bridge.

The restrictions are needed to address corrosion on the old drawbridge, the Park Service said. The emergency repairs, estimated at $3 million, could keep those restrictions in place for six to nine months.

Norton, a ranking member of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, said June 1 that her bill was needed to address "the most neglected portion of America’s outworn infrastructure."

In addition to funding NPS-managed roads, the measure would establish the Nationally Significant Federal Lands and Tribal Transportation Program and provide $150 million per year to fund it. The funding would begin in July, when current funding expires, and run until 2021.

National Park Service

The Arlington Memorial Bridge was built as a drawbridge in 1932 to connect Washington with Arlington, VA. It is one of 14 bridges in the District of Columbia that have been declared structurally deficient. Bridges in national parks, tribal lands and the capital are funded only by federal dollars and do not qualify for state transportation money.

The bill's nine-figure pricetag "hardly dents the $11.5 billion in maintenance" needed by the federally funded structures, Norton noted.

Rehabilitation of the Arlington Memorial Bridge would cost $250 million alone, although the project could be accomplished with the multiyear program funding proposed, she said.

Currently, the entire lands transfer program for those projects has only $240 million in funding, she said.

(Norton's bill is different from the regular transportation funding measure that Congress agreed in late May to extend through July 31.)

Bridges Falling Apart

The Arlington Memorial Bridge is just one of 14 bridges in the District of Columbia rated as "structurally deficient," according to WNEW in Washington.

Built as a drawbridge in 1932 but not opened as such since 1961, the bridge carries 68,000 commuters per day. That includes buses that may be limited significantly as a result of the new weight limit.

The bridge provides a critical tourism link between Washington and Virginia's landmarks, including Arlington National Cemetery and Mount Vernon.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said the bridge had been built to represent the nation's industrial strength.

But with corrosion and broken concrete obvious under the arches in the 2,100-foot-long span, the bridge now represents something else: a failure to manage deteriorating infrastructure, said Foxx.

"We're not cutting the mustard right now," he said.


Tagged categories: Bridges; Corrosion protection; Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); Government; Rehabilitation/Repair; Roads/Highways; Steel

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