WASHINGTON — Under the glare of floodlights, as late-night drivers and early-morning commuters shared the same traffic backup before dawn Thursday morning, three lanes of the Capital Beltway around Washington closed to let repair crews patch a mega-pothole on a bridge Kensington Avenue in Maryland.
It was a bad pothole on an otherwise sound bridge, but the potential for bridge repairs to gum up the works was telling on a day when new federal data revealed that there are 63,000 U.S. bridges in need of more significant repair.
“These are bridges where drivers and first-responders are crossing over 250 million times each and every day,” said Alison Premo Black, an economist with the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, the group that compiled the federal data.
Though there have been some dramatic bridge collapses in recent years, the 63,000 bridges judged structurally deficient are not all about to fall down. Bridges deemed on the verge of collapsing are shut down.
In a sense, the problem is more insidious than that. In tight times, states and counties often have to put off necessary repairs to bridges and roads. The traditional source they rely on for federal dollars — the Highway Trust Fund — is projected to run into the red sometime this summer.
That has left state and local highway officials in limbo, waiting to see if Congress finds a new revenue source to supply the dollars they need. In some states, half of transportation funding comes from Washington, and until local officials know whether they can expect that to continue, they are loathe to launch multi-year projects to renew or replace bridges and roadways.
“Over the last 15 years, state DOTs and local governments have been making significant investments to improve some of these bridges, but they simply don’t have enough funding to address the problem,” Black said.
With an ample boost in federal money, $100.2 billion was spent by governments on all levels in 2010 on capital improvements for the nation’s 604,493 bridges and 4.1 million miles of roads.
That sort of spending brought progress in the first decade of the 21st century, leading to a slight decline in the number of deficient bridges.
But with much of the nation’s post-World War II infrastructure wearing out and the federal gas tax that built it steadily declining, experts say more than 1 trillion dollars of investment is needed to shore it up.
“We would suggest that signs be posted on structurally deficient bridges so people know what they’re travelling over,” Black said. “Sometimes bridges on this list do fail. The I-35 bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed in 2007, that bridge was on the structurally deficient list.”
Deficient bridges — those rated poor or worse because load-carrying elements have deteriorated — can have a consequential impact on consumers. As they continue to decline, weight restrictions often result, and when trucks delivering shipments to market take longer, roundabout routes, some prices can increase.
Pennsylvania, with 5,218 deficient bridges — almost one-quarter of its bridges — has the nation’s worst problem. In contrast, the three jurisdictions in the Washington region are in good shape. The District has 252 troubled bridges, 8 percent of its total number. Maryland has 5,291 deficient state and county bridges, 6 percent of its total. Virginia has 13,765, 9 percent of its total.