The four-lane Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River near Seattle seemed to be in good shape for a 58-year-old structure. Inspected as recently as last November, it wasn't even on the list of bridges judged "structurally deficient." Yet in May, it suddenly collapsed after a truck clipped a steel truss. Two cars careened into the river below. Fortunately, no one was killed.
It was a "fracture critical" bridge, which means that it can break apart if a single, vital component is undermined. The I-35W bridge in Minneapolis was also such a structure. In 2007, it collapsed during rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145 others.
However, public officials in recent years have been focused on repairing other dangerous bridges deemed "structurally deficient," which means that a large portion of the bridge is in poor condition or worse.
Thousands of "fracture critical" bridges are currently in use, according to a recent Associated Press analysis. Amazingly, 68,842 bridges in America — 11.5 percent — are classified as "structurally deficient," requiring significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement.
You can look up your local "structurally deficient" bridges on the website of Transportation for America (a national coalition for transportation policy reform) at t4america.org/resources/bridges. Boulder and Broomfield have three, Longmont has six, Louisville has seven, Lafayette has 10. The Colorado Springs area has 16.
At an average age of 43 years, the typical bridge in America is nearing the end of its 50-year design life, and many thousands are much older than that. But governments favor spending transportation dollars on widening roads or building new expressways that encourage sprawl.
Transportation for America reports: "In recent years, most transportation agencies have delayed needed repairs and maintenance, while focusing their energy on new construction. In 2008, all states combined spent more than $18 billion, or 30 percent of the federal transportation funds they received, to build new roads or add capacity to existing roads. In that same year, states spent $8.1 billion of federal funds on repair and rehabilitation of bridges, or about 13 percent of total funds. States currently have the ability to 'flex,' or transfer out, up to 50 percent of their bridge repair money into other projects or programs."
The group notes that "repair work on roads and bridges generates 16 percent more jobs than construction of new bridges and roads," and that over 25 years, deferring maintenance can cost three times as much as preventive repairs.
In his State of the Union message this year, President Obama specifically mentioned the need to deal with the country's "structurally deficient" bridges as part of his $50 billion "Fix-It-First" program for repairing the nation's roads, highways, bridges and transit systems.
The Economist notes:
"Not counting the country's functionally obsolete bridges (like the Seattle and Minneapolis bridges), the putative cost of the current backlog of work waiting to be done on the National Highway System's bridge rehabilitation and replacement program is more than $32 billion (in 2004 dollars). It would take more than $5 billion a year for 20 years to catch up. Doing so at a pace President Obama had in mind would require at least $20 billion a year."
There's another problem. The Highway Trust Fund, which receives money from gas taxes to pay for repairing bridges and other infrastructure, is expected to go broke next year. Revenue from these taxes has declined steadily as Americans have switched to more efficient cars, and also started driving less due to continuing high unemployment and a decline in living standards.
Public transportation ridership is at record highs, while transit agencies are facing unprecedented fiscal crises in this economic downturn, which results in service cuts, layoffs and fare increases. Only 30 of America's 100 largest metropolitan regions have light rail or subway systems.
We need to re-think our priorities. Our national transportation policies have to go beyond the automobile and promote more ecological ways of getting around, such as public transit, railroads and bikes.
Dave Anderson was a librarian at the University of Colorado Boulder for 30 years and a local union president. He has been a freelance writer since 1970; this column first appeared in the Boulder Weekly.