More Than One Quarter of Nation’s Bridges are ’Deficient’

Mon July 21, 2003 - National Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) More than one quarter of all U.S. highway bridges are considered deficient, a high number, but a marked improvement after a decade of increased government spending.

The number of bridges considered deficient — they need repairs, cannot adequately handle traffic loads or do not meet safety standards — declined 18 percent from 1992 to 2002, from 199,090 to 163,010, according to an Associated Press computer analysis of Federal Highway Administration data.

That new total still amounts to 28 percent of bridges.

The figures show North Dakota had 1,119 deficient bridges last year compared with 1,550 in 1992.

Failure to make timely fixes to aging bridges can have deadly consequences. Three people died last November when a century-old bridge across the Chickasawhay River collapsed in Waynesboro, MS. A replacement bridge was being built nearby at the time.

There can be other costs as well.

In Warren, PA, the local hospital has stationed an ambulance crew on the other side of town to avoid a time-consuming 3-mi. detour around the Hickory Street Bridge. The 86-year-old concrete arch bridge had deteriorated so thoroughly that it was closed at the end of March. A new $10-million span is more than a year away.

The drop in deficient bridges coincided with the passage of two federal transportation bills that earmarked $36.5 billion for repairs beginning in 1992 — more than double the $15.3-billion allocated during the previous decade.

“There’s no question that the previous two highway bills played a vital role in beginning to address the problem with obsolete and structurally deficient bridges, but the numbers still remain alarming,” said Steve Hansen, a spokesman for House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-AK.

Congress is preparing to renew the legislation, which determines how much federal money flows to states to build and repair roads and bridges. The current six-year bill expires Sept. 30.

While lawmakers debate how much to spend, some state governments, already facing budget shortfalls, are cutting back. Maryland and Kansas have diverted money from transportation projects for other government services, and Wisconsin is considering it.

“In terms of improving the conditions of bridges, it’s really falling into Congress’ lap, given the tremendous fiscal constraints state and local governments are facing,” said Frank Moretti, director of policy and research for The Road Information Program, a research group financed by the construction industry.

The Bush administration has proposed increasing highway and transit funding by 13 percent, to $247 billion over the next six years. Young has said that’s not enough and has discussed an increase in the gasoline tax to raise more money. Young wants to spend $375 billion over six years.

In New York, where 10 people died in 1987 in the collapse of an inadequately maintained state bridge, the number of deficient spans declined by 43 percent in the last decade, a higher percentage than any other state. The state had 6,501 deficient bridges at the end of 2002, down from 11,419 in 1992.

Other places have not fared so well. More than two-thirds of the bridges in the District of Columbia are deficient, the highest percentage in the nation. The list includes the Benning Road bridge across the Anacostia River, where 68,400 vehicles travel every day across a span rated in poor condition.

More than half the bridges in Massachusetts and Rhode Island also are deficient.

Kazem Farhoumand, deputy chief engineer for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, said his state has spent much of its money to rebuild or renovate larger, more expensive bridges.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t sufficient money available to take care of all the infrastructure needs,” Farhoumand said. “In this part of the country, we also have a couple of other factors: many old bridges and harsh winters.”

Rhode Island is one of nine states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, where the number of deficient bridges rose over the past decade. Rhode Island’s deficient bridges rose from 335 in 1992 to 394 in 2002, an 18 percent jump. In Alaska, the number of deficient bridges more than doubled, from 200 in 1992 to 427 in 2002.

“It seems like we have a tremendously long way to go,” said Mantill Williams, a spokesman for the AAA motor clubs. “The longer we wait, the more expensive it’s going to get.”