U.S. Bridges: A Tragedy Waiting to Happen

– Marc Gravely, March 5th 2022

Humans have been building bridges since Neolithic times. In the 21st century, as we prepare to colonize other planets, one would think the most powerful nation in the world would have perfected the technology enough to ensure that our bridges are safe. That is, unfortunately, not the case. There are at least 231,000 bridges in a pitiful state of disrepair on American soil. The majority of them are too old or damaged to repair and need to be replaced.

2020 analysis by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association concluded that 81,000 U.S. bridges need to be replaced, and over 46,000 are structurally deficient. Repairing and replacing all these bridges, ARTBA estimated, would take 40 years and cost $164 billion.

Our nation’s bridge infrastructure is largely underfunded. The administration’s new infrastructure bill promised to fix the problem, but as of March 2022, it has only allocated $27.5 billion to bridge infrastructure, which results in a finance gap surpassing $136 billion.

Since the interstate system’s creation, this may be the largest federal investment in bridge infrastructure, but it is still not enough to make all our bridges safe. According to The Washington Post, “The infusion of money should help state transportation departments build on progress but it’s unlikely to benefit every aging bridge.”

Bridge infrastructure is vital for our economy. There are over 69,500 bridges not operating at full capacity due to structural deficiencies. This results in weight restrictions that lead to trucks having to take alternative routes, increasing transportation costs.

Innovation scholar Edward Tenner once wrote, “disasters have been powerful instruments of change. Designers learn from failure.” But failure has been a slow teacher in the case of U.S. bridge infrastructure.

The last major bridge collapse on U.S. soil took place last January. The 50-year-old bridge over Fern Hollow Creek in Pittsburgh fell apart, sending a municipal bus and five private cars down the ravine. There were no fatalities this time, but we have seen enough tragedies over the last decades. One of the most dramatic occurred In 2007, when the I-35 W Bridge collapsed over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, killing 13 people.

What Happens When Bridges Collapse

On August 1st, 2007, in downtown Minneapolis, rush-hour traffic was flowing across the Interstate 35 West bridge. The forty-year-old bridge served over 140,000 vehicles every day. Shortly after 6 P.M., motorists heard a loud clank as the bridge trembled before breaking down and partially plunging into the Mississippi River.

Dozens of cars started filling with water as their occupants struggled to escape. Thirteen people were killed, and 145 were injured. The economic damage was massive. The Governor described the collapse as “a catastrophe of historic proportions for Minnesota.”

Nobody should have been surprised. Every year, when the bridge underwent inspections, the result was consistently the same: numerous cracks, rampant corrosion, and fatigue. Politicians argued that there were problems, but they were not that bad. According to the authorities, there was no recommendation to immediately close the bridge. I wonder what the families of the people who plunged to their death would have to say about that.

We don’t need more bridges to be closed. What we need are funds and a clear plan to bring all bridges up to standard. An aging infrastructure combined with negligent maintenance is a tragedy waiting to happen. Sometimes, like in Minneapolis, it just doesn’t wait.

Fourteen years have passed since the I-35 bridge collapsed, and there are still about 2,000 bridges in need of repair or replacement in Minnesota. How many people have to die before our government takes this matter seriously?

Functionally Obsolete

Like other engineering structures, bridges are not made to last forever. Many of America’s bridges are still in operation long past the end of their design lifespan. Others were designed for low traffic and are now experiencing massive traffic due to demographic growth. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 13.6 percent of bridges have become functionally obsolete.

It remains to be seen how the new federal funds will impact the state of bridge infrastructure nationwide. With 1,600 bridges in poor condition, Louisiana will get $1 billion to finance repairs. Pennsylvania has over 3,300 bridges in poor condition and will receive $1.6 billion. California will get $4.2 billion. Florida and Texas will split a meager $800 million, while 23 states will get $225 million each.

Closing bridges in poor condition is not a viable solution. When a bridge closes, communities suffer, whole regions are disrupted, and massive economic losses occur. The new infrastructure bill has brought hope, but it is not enough to fix every aging bridge. According to ARTBA, fixing the bridges in need of most urgent repairs would cost $42 billion.

The White House recently announced that states would receive $5.3 billion to fix bridges over the course of fiscal year 2022. On March 1st, 2022, during his State of the Union address, President Biden announced repairs on 1,500 bridges would begin before the end of the year.

As states start planning how the new federal funds will be spent, one can only hope they will use these resources wisely. The new infrastructure bill has been a step in the right direction, but it is certainly not enough.

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