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Little Help in Stimulus for Bad Bridges

Wed August 05, 2009 - National Edition
Brett J. Blackledge and Matt Apuzzo

WASHINGTON (AP) Tens of thousands of unsafe or decaying bridges carrying 100 million drivers a day must wait for repairs because states are spending stimulus money on spans that are already in good shape or on easier projects like repaving roads, an Associated Press analysis shows.

President Barack Obama urged Congress last winter to pass his $787 billion stimulus package so some of the economic recovery money could be used to rebuild what he called America’s “crumbling bridges.’’ Lawmakers said it was a historic chance to chip away at the $65 billion backlog of deficient structures, often neglected until a catastrophe like the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed two years ago.

States, however, have other plans. Of the 2,476 bridges scheduled to receive stimulus money so far, nearly half have passed inspections with high marks, according to federal data. Those 1,123 sound bridges received such high inspection ratings that they normally would not qualify for federal bridge money, yet they will share in more than $1.2 billion in stimulus money.

The wooden bridge built in 1900 carrying Harlan Springs Road in Berkeley County, W.Va., is one of the nation’s unsafe structures not being repaired. About 2,700 cars cross it every day. But with holes in the wooden deck and corroded railings and missing steel poles, only one car at a time can travel the 300-ft. rickety span.

The bridge is an example of how Obama’s call to spend recovery money quickly — on “shovel ready’’ projects to get people back to work — has clashed with other goals of the stimulus, such as targeting high-unemployment areas and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. State transportation officials said the need for speed makes it hard to funnel money into needy counties or to take on extensive bridge repairs that can involve years of planning and construction.

Repaving or widening roads requires less planning and can be done quickly, which is why such projects account for 70 percent of the $17 billion in transportation stimulus money approved so far. Bridge projects represent 12 percent.

The spending decisions by states are OK with the Obama administration.

Ed Deseve, the president’s chief executive of the stimulus, said the administration understands the desire to tackle “longer-term, gleam-in-the-eye projects’’ but told states “please, give us your shovel-ready projects.’’

The idea, he said, was to provide an immediate jolt to the nation’s economy.

“We’re delighted states are able to move quickly,’’ Deseve said.

Obama said he was heartened by better-than-expected economic data and said “part of the progress is directly attributable to the Recovery Act.’’

Lawmakers in both parties, however, said they were concerned stimulus money was not being spent fast enough. And the Associated General Contractors trade group said stimulus construction money has had little effect on the ability to hire workers.

Florida Rep. John Mica, the senior Republican on the transportation committee, said the government needed to give a “kick in the pants’’ to whoever is keeping bridges from getting needed repairs.

“The stimulus is just leaving the big bridge projects behind,’’ Mica said.

A few states, such as Virginia and South Carolina, are targeting their troubled bridges. In all, 1,286 deficient or obsolete bridges are expected to share $2.2 billion in stimulus money for repairs, the AP analysis shows.

But that’s less than 1 percent of the more than 150,000 bridges nationwide that engineers have labeled deficient or obsolete. Of those, more than 39,000 are considered the worst, rated poor in at least one structural component and eligible to be replaced with federal money.

William Stubblefield, a Berkeley County, W.Va., commissioner, said he’s confident state transportation officials are monitoring bridge safety and money will come soon for his county’s bridges. The wooden bridge in Berkeley County is among more than a third of the state’s 7,064 bridges deemed deficient or obsolete by inspectors.

Safety problems are so obvious on some spans, like the Harlan Springs bridge, that engineers have restricted traffic.

“If we’re seeing some obvious deterioration, that’s too late,’’ Stubblefield said.

For its analysis, the AP asked each state and the District of Columbia to identify every bridge on which it planned some work using stimulus money. In some states that represented a final list. In others, new projects could be added. Most states provided project costs, but some did not. Some states included in their costs other road work related to the bridge project, like paving or widening nearby roads.

The AP then researched each bridge using the latest inspection data available from the Transportation Department.

This analysis found that:

• Many states did not make bridge work a priority in stimulus spending. More than half plan work on fewer than two-dozen bridges and 18 states plan fewer than 10 projects.

• In 24 states, at least half of the bridges being worked on with stimulus money were not deficient.

• In 15 states, at least two-thirds of the bridges receiving stimulus money are not deficient.

Transportation officials said the stimulus program’s mandates — shovel-ready projects that can be finished in three years and create jobs quickly — made it nearly impossible to focus on bad bridges that weren’t already scheduled for repairs.

“The feds had their own priorities, and their big priority was jobs and the economy. As a result, we had to move things quickly. I don’t fault that,’’ said John Zicconi, spokesman for the Vermont Agency of Transportation. “Nobody put the stimulus together as an answer to all our bridge issues. It was about putting people to work.’’

That’s not exactly how it was billed. Obama pointed to the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge during the Great Depression as an example of how transportation money in the new stimulus law could “remake the face of the nation.’’

“It’s what we’re doing once more, by building a 21st century infrastructure that will make America’s economy stronger and America’s people safer,’’ Obama said in March.

While the stimulus will pay for a few such projects, like the massive new Cleveland Innerbelt Bridge, for the most part the money will not build a 21st century transportation system. It will repave the 20th century system.

Democrats helping Obama campaign for the stimulus program singled out bridge repairs when promoting the bill. In a conference call with reporters before passage, Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed said a bridge in Providence would benefit from the recovery program.

“If we fix that bridge, we’re not only putting people to work, but we’re going to speed, literally speed our economic activity,’’ Reed said.

The Pawtucket River Bridge may have helped Reed make his point, but it was already on track to be repaired and is not part of the state’s stimulus plan. Rhode Island, the state with the nation’s highest percentage, 52 percent, of bad bridges, so far plans to use stimulus money to work on only six of its 397 deficient or obsolete structures.

After the stimulus bill was passed in February, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick was asked on National Public Radio to list projects the stimulus would fund.

“I can tell you that, for example, we have some prominent bridges that are structurally deficient that we want to get to as soon as possible for reasons of safety,’’ Patrick said.

But Patrick knew that months earlier he and state legislators had passed a $3 billion bridge program that didn’t rely on stimulus money. Massachusetts, a state with more than half of its 5,063 bridges deemed deficient or obsolete by inspectors, so far is spending recovery money on only one bridge.

Some states did decide early to target bad bridges with economic recovery money.

In Virginia, state bridge engineer Kendal Walus recalled bosses telling him last fall, as talk of a stimulus was just beginning, that the state would probably make bridges a priority.

“They said, get as many bridge projects as I could get and they’d be willing to entertain it,’’ Walus said.

With more than 1,200 deficient bridges in the state and an estimated $3.7 billion needed to repair or replace them, there were lots of choices. Engineers selected small bridges that could be fixed without the long engineering process and environmental permitting normally required for larger structures. Walus said engineers worked long hours this winter tying up loose ends to get those projects ready to go.

As a result, 69 of the 73 Virginia bridges receiving stimulus money are either deficient or obsolete, according to inspection records.

But targeting deficient bridges with new federal money isn’t as easy as it sounds, officials in other states said.

Washington state, for example, struggled with a plea from King County officials to help pay for the replacement of the 75-year-old drawbridge that serves as a major corridor in Seattle and connects two of the city’s industrial areas. The bridge’s cracked concrete foundations, widespread corrosion in steel beams and deteriorating moveable spans make it one of the nation’s worst still in daily operation — scoring a 3 out of 100 for structural sufficiency.

State officials couldn’t commit stimulus money to the project, which already was getting local and state funds, said Paula Hammond, the state’s transportation secretary. The South Park bridge was not a state priority, and officials needed to focus on projects that could be completed quickly, Hammond said.

“Every state is going through this because speed was a major, major factor for us,’’ she said.

More than a quarter of Washington’s 7,763 bridges are either deficient or obsolete, inspection records show.

With $27 billion in highway and bridge money, the stimulus provided an important stopgap but is too little to remake the U.S. transportation infrastructure, she added.

“If you wanted that to happen,’’ Hammond said, “you’d probably have to multiply that number by 10.’’

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