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Engineer Spotlight: The Unhappy State of U.S. Bridges and Highways

Chris Maeder on October 10, 2016 - in Articles, Column

An interesting article ran in the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Journal of Leadership and Management in Engineering in 2008: “A Tale of Two Bridges: Dangerous and Still Standing.” Robert W. Clark, P.E., authored the piece about two well-used bridges in Stuyvesant, N.Y. One of the bridges had passed safety inspections by the state DOT every year. The other bridge, owned by CSX Railroad, also had cleared corporate safety standards. Clark inspected the bridges and determined that they both posed a danger to the public and the environment. The local press covered the story, the state DOT revisited the scene, and the bridges were closed for public use.

The Basic Facts, Ma’am

This is only one published case study, but, without a doubt, the basic facts and story line could be replicated in any number of communities throughout the nation. And we’ve all seen it: pothole-ridden roads, urban landscapes reminiscent of post-Apocalyptic disaster zones and crumbling inner-city highways.

The ASCE published the 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure and outlined the condition of different sectors of the United States’ built environment. The report made several unfortunate, but telling, conclusions.

On a national scale, 66,749 bridges out of 607,380 are structurally deficient, representing one-third of the total bridge-deck surface area. Smaller bridges are in a state of disrepair, but so too are those that are longer and greater in size. More often than not, these are metropolitan bridges that experience heavy use. (Recall the catastrophic highway bridge collapse in Minneapolis, and you get the picture.) The Federal Highway Administration estimates that the average age of highway bridges is 42 years. More than 30 percent of the nation’s bridges have exceeded their projected lifespan of 50 years.

The Shifting Global Lineup

Following large-scale post-war building in the form of the interstate highway system and other public works, the United States’ world standing in terms of the built environment was looking pretty good. But the story is different now.

Data released in 2013 through the World Economic Forum show that road conditions in the United States have lowered its global competitiveness score from 6.1 (out of 7.0) in 2006-2007 to 5.6 in 2012-2013. The United States slipped from its seventh-place ranking in 2006 for the quality of its roads to number 20 in 2012-2013.

And let’s not even talk about high-speed rail. Japan has more than 2,000 kilometers of high-speed rail and is building more; China has 2,500 kilometers under construction. The United States has less than 300 kilometers of high-speed rail and presently no plans to build more. We would need more than $250 billion during the next two decades to catch up to the baseline standards for rail travel seen in Europe and Asia. In 2011, The Economist wrote, “America, despite its wealth and strength, often seems to be falling apart.”

Weak Funding and Weaker Political Will

Through time, it has become obvious that there’s a significant disconnect between the U.S. appetite for cars and road expansion, and the country’s ability to support the bridges and roads on which cars depend. Basic funding for fundamental levels of maintenance is lacking.

Beginning in the 1970s, the United States has been allocating a smaller percentage of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to infrastructure funding. In the 1960s, the percentage of GDP allocated to infrastructure was approximately 5 percent; by the mid 1990s, this percentage had shrunk to 2.5 percent; and presently, it stands at approximately 2 percent. This won’t cover the work that needs to be done now: the Federal Department of Transportation estimates a current $115 billion backlog in repairs for bridges.

How We Pay for Repairs Now

State and federal fuel taxes are the primary source of funding for the Highway Trust Fund. The revenues generated from this source regularly fall short as a result of tax rates that have remained the same since 1993 and changes in patterns of fuel consumption. Patch-up measures will only work for so long. Congress approved a $305 billion, five-year highway bill in December 2015, but some experts predict that states are likely to slow down projects as funding tapers off.

Congress cobbles together short-term fixes to a problem that grows thornier every year. The bottom line is that there’s no sustainable long-term funding in place to address existing and future infrastructure needs. The Federal Highway Commission estimates that the United States needs $126 billion per year to maintain the existing highway system—actual spending is much lower, according to 2011 reports from the Congressional Budget Office. 

Several strategies are being considered to increase revenue (at least in the short term), including raising fuel taxes and increasing the use of toll highways, exploring public-private partnerships (PPP), and using a vehicle mileage traveled (VMT) fee. Of these, the VMT fee seems most likely to be adopted. Not only would it reduce traffic congestion, but it might encourage more-efficient use of vehicles.

This problem isn’t just about isolated pockets of failing infrastructure, but about the state of the built environment as a whole in the United States. As Clarke thoughtfully pointed out in his aforementioned article, “The monumental effort that will be required to rebuild the constructed fabric of the United States is about to be forced on us and will be painful.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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About Chris Maeder

Chris Maeder, P.E., M.S., CFM, is engineering director at CivilGEO Inc.; email: [email protected].

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