By Paolo von Schirach
September 26, 2013
WASHINGTON – A major bridge in Green Bay, Wisconsin has been closed to traffic because it almost collapsed. The bridge carries about 40,000 trucks and cars per day. The closure is due to a sagging of the structure due to the settling of a bridge pier. There were no accidents. The causes of the collapse will be investigated.
Too many deficient bridges
Taken in isolation, this is an unfortunate development; but hardly a tragedy. Taken in the context of systemic under investment in US basic infrastructure, this one relatively minor incident should raise plenty of red flags. This particular structure was built in 1980 and so it is not that old. In fact, it is not among the 60 Wisconsin bridges that a 2012 inspection defined as deficient. Still, now it is severely damaged. Poor design? Faulty construction? Who knows. But what about the other 60 bridges in need of serious repairs just in Wisconsin? When will that work be done?
A bigger national problem
If Wisconsin needs to allocate additional resources to fix its aging infrastructure, nationwide we have a crisis. The 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, released by the American Society of Civil Engineers, gives an average grade of D+ to US roads, bridges, railways and more. “D” as we all know means “Poor”. “D+” is nothing to be proud of. The report estimates that, in order to fix crumbling infrastructure (forget about building anything new) America should invest $ 3.6 trillion by 2020. That’s a lot of money. As of now there is absolutely no political agreement in Washington on directing any significant federal funds to this effort that in many instances should be considered an emergency intervention.
The state of our bridges
Within the rather dismal national average, bridges do a little bit better. They get a C+. Still, while the picture in this category has improved somewhat in the last few years, there is still a huge gap between required spending and existing allocations. This is what the Report says:
“Over two hundred million trips are taken daily across deficient bridges in the nation’s 102 largest metropolitan regions. In total, one in nine of the nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient, while the average age of the nation’s 607,380 bridges is currently 42 years. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates that to eliminate the nation’s bridge deficient backlog by 2028, we would need to invest $20.5 billion annually, while only $12.8 billion is being spent currently. The challenge for federal, state, and local governments is to increase bridge investments by $8 billion annually to address the identified $76 billion in needs for deficient bridges across the United States.”
So, every year there is an $ 8 billion deficit. And consider that bridges get an above average grade. Other sectors are even more severely under funded. It is obvious that old and crumbling infrastructure creates huge public safety risks. Beyond that, it is a drag on the economy. Moving people and goods around costs more, and these costs hold the US economy back.
Time to invest
Even in this cash strapped economy there should be a political consensus on this. Spending on America’s basic infrastructure is a good deal. It creates jobs while it safeguards our economic future. Besides, if we fail to make these absolutely necessary, (in some cases urgent), investments, expect more closings of damaged bridges, or worse. This time we got lucky because there was no collapse.