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Some States Making Headway on Deficient Bridges

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(This article first ran in Transportation Innovations newsletter.) Editor’s note:  Virginia’s next Governor could learn lessons from the examples in this article and dramatically improve the faulty bridges in our state.

The collapse of one span of the I-5 bridge in Washington State several months ago has led to considerable discussion of U.S. bridge problems. After the 2008 bridge collapse on I-35 in Minneapolis, the Government Accountability Office recommended a major overhaul of the federal bridge program. Not all states were using their federal bridge money to reduce their backlog of deficient bridges (and the law allowed them to shift half of it to general highway purposes). Some disagreed with the federal deficiency measures, and some told GAO that linking the amount of funding to the extent of deficient bridges might create a perverse incentive toward retaining a large number of them.

And while MAP-21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century – the federal law that funds surface transportation programs for FY 2014-15)) did make a few changes, it’s not clear to me that deficient bridges—while a serious problem—are an inherently federal responsibility. Any review of tables of deficient bridges by state makes it pretty clear that this is a very state-specific problem, with a handful of states that have let the problem get out of hand (Rhode Island 53.4% deficient as of 2008; Pennsylvania 38.7%; Hawaii 38.0%; New York 37.1%; Massachusetts 36.4%) while at the other end of the spectrum are relatively responsible states with much smaller fractions (Nevada 11.0%; Arizona 11.5%; Minnesota 13.4%; Wyoming 13.5%; Colorado 13.8%).

Some states are dramatically reducing the time it takes to replace deficient bridges by adopting accelerated bridge construction (ABC) techniques. This typically involves constructing most of the superstructure off-site and moving it into place when the piers and abutments are ready. Utah was a pioneer of this approach, and made it standard for bridge replacement in 2010. Nevada, Texas, and Massachusetts have also begun using ABC in recent years.

Another innovation is packaging a large number of bridge refurbishments and replacements into a single design-build contract. Missouri pioneered this approach with its Safe & Sound Bridge Improvement Program, replacing 554 obsolete bridges. Awarded in 2009 to a team of companies, the program was completed 14 months ahead of schedule. North Carolina DOT’s state-funded Bridge Improvement Program aims to replace 705 structurally deficient bridges and refurbish another 475, via “express design-build.” And Oklahoma DOT is under way on a program to eliminate all structurally deficient bridges by 2019.

Pennsylvania DOT is planning to make use of its new PPP law to bundle about 1,000 state, county, and local deficient bridges into an availability-pay concession, which of course will require increased state funding which the governor is seeking but has not yet obtained. Last month the DOT secretary said that weight limits will have to be imposed on over 1,000 such bridges if the repair-and-replace program is not funded.

In a piece offering useful perspective on the bridge situation nationwide, Eric Jaffee (The Atlantic Cities) noted that in the 2008 GAO report, state officials said that repair or replacement of deficient bridges in urban corridors is typically a mega-project, and that “funding just one of these mega-projects could mean ignoring all other state bridges for years.” Which suggests the rather obvious solution of toll-financing such mega-projects. And that is what several states are doing.

One example is the $2.6 billion Ohio River Bridges project, which is building two tolled crossings of the river at Louisville, KY. Another is the proposed replacement for the functionally obsolete Scudder Falls Bridge on I-95 near Trenton, NJ, using toll finance. It has been legal since 1991, under federal law, to replace a non-tolled bridge or tunnel on the Interstate with a tolled one, and today’s all-electronic tolling makes that far more user-friendly than in the 20th century when introducing tolls would have meant creating toll plazas. On a smaller scale, two entirely private-sector bridge replacements are the $100 million Jordan Bridge in Portsmouth, VA (which opened last year) and the $200 million Cline Avenue Bridge in East Chicago, IN.

As you can see, can-do states and localities are moving ahead with innovative approaches to deal with their deficient bridges. While I’m sure the federal bridge program has done some good, it’s far from clear that a bigger, better federal program is the answer to this very state-specific problem.

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