Transportation Group Fears Funding Collapse For Bridge Repair

Apr 25, 2014
Originally published on April 25, 2014 12:02 pm

There are 63,000 structurally deficient bridges across the U.S., and the fund to fix them is drying up, according to a new report from the trade group American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

The report’s author, ARTBA chief economist Alison Black, discusses the problem with Here & Now’s Robin Young. She says that of the 250 most heavily crossed structurally deficient bridges, “well over 150″ of them are in California.

Interview Highlights: Alison Black

On determining which bridges are not structurally sound

“The Federal Highway Administration collects data every year from state DOTs and other bridge owners about the status of the nation’s bridges. So they do have a ratings system based on bridge inspections that are conducted at least every two years on all the structures across the United States. A bridge is classified as structurally deficient if one of the key structural elements, which could include the deck, superstructure or substructure, is rated in poor condition.”

On the Highway Trust Fund going insolvent by end of the fiscal year

“The challenge is that all the revenues coming into the Highway Trust Fund need to be used to pay for projects that are ongoing. So the Highway Trust Fund will definitely be able to meet all of its commitments, in terms of making sure that any project underway will continue to receive federal funds. However, there are not enough revenues to get any new projects underway in fiscal year 2015, which starts October 1st. And this is going to have a significant impact on every state highway and bridge construction program. When you look at the last 10 years, on average, the federal aid program is about 52 percent of all state highway and bridge construction spending, so it’s a very very important part of the overall market in trying to address some of these condition issues.”

What states are doing to make up for the federal funding

“We’ve seen six states increase their gas taxes or their revenues, including sales taxes on gasoline, just in 2013 alone, so states are trying to address this issue, but again we are so far behind the eight ball in terms of what we need to be spending to make the significant improvements to help our economy.”

Guest

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Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

Question for you: Do you travel the McDonald Street Bridge over the 405 in L.A.? How about the Mill Creek Road Bridge over the Schuylkill outside Philly or the Grand Ave. Bridge at I-35 in Polk County, Iowa? If so, you are traveling over some of the more than 63,000 bridges in need of repair in the U.S., over 4,000 in Oklahoma, 133 in Alaska.

In four states - Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Iowa and South Dakota - 20 percent of the bridges are in the structurally deficient or in need of repair category, and the funds for these repairs are drying up. Alison Black is chief economist with the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. They're a lobbying group that put out today's report. Alison, welcome.

ALISON BLACK: Thank you very much.

YOUNG: And what you did is analyze a 2013 survey of bridges by the Department of Transportation. So first of all start there. How do we determine which bridge isn't structurally sound?

BLACK: Well, the Federal Highway Administration collects data every year from state DOTs and other bridge owners about the status of the nation's bridges. So they do have a ratings system based on bridge inspections that are conducted at least every two years on all the structures across the United States. So a bridge is classified as structurally deficient if one of the key structural elements, which could include the deck, superstructure or substructure, is rated in poor condition.

YOUNG: So we see Pennsylvania has 5,200 bridges that need repair, and of course Pennsylvania has beautiful old stone bridges, covered bridges, wooden bridges but also commuter bridges, 5,200. Iowa, number two, with 5,000. You found the 250 most heavily crossed structurally deficient bridges are on urban interstate highways, no surprise, and particularly in the very big state of California.

BLACK: They do account for well over 150 of those top 250 that we listed.

YOUNG: Well, we've reported quite a bit on crumbling infrastructure. In March, President Obama proposed a $302 billion transportation budget to help fund the Highway Trust Fund, which is also funded by the federal gas tax, and that's what pays for road and bridge projects. It's expected to go insolvent by the end of the fiscal year. What will that do to bridge repair projects?

BLACK: Well, the challenge is that all the revenues coming into the Highway Trust Fund need to be used to pay for projects that are ongoing. So the Highway Trust Fund will definitely be able to meet all of its commitments in terms of making sure that any project underway will continue to receive federal funds.

However, there are not enough revenues to get any new projects underway in fiscal year 2015, which starts October 1. And this is going to have a significant impact on every state highway and bridge construction program. When you look at the last 10 years, on average, the federal aid program is about 52 percent of all state highway and bridge construction spending, so it's a very, very important part of the overall market in trying to address some of these condition issues.

YOUNG: Well, your organization is trying to get across this point with comparisons. For instance you say that if all the structurally deficient bridges in the U.S. were placed end to end, it would take 25 hours driving 60 miles an hour to cross them, like driving from Boston to Miami. But you are a lobbying organization, and you are confronting a Congress that hasn't been passing bills.

This month House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer predicted that any bill that doesn't fall under the constraints of the House Budget Chair Paul Ryan will not pass, and in fact the Department of Transportation funding bills were pulled. So where else do you look for this money?

BLACK: Well, traditionally, transportation has been a bipartisan issue, and Congress is aware that they need to address this issue. And the federal aid program is so important to the overall market. Public-private partnerships and some other financing mechanisms can be helpful in trying to address specific projects, but they're not going to solve the chronic underinvestment that we've made in our infrastructure for years.

That really is the job of Congress, to help provide that funding. And again, state DOTs are doing the best they can, but they can't wave a magic wand and make this situation disappear.

YOUNG: Well, in fact we did a story on this in March. We'll link you to it at hereandnow.org. But to review, the federal gas tax has been flat for about 20 years. So some states are raising their state gas taxes to help pay for this infrastructure. They're also looking at things like pay-per-mile programs, where you pay for miles that you drive on state and federal roads, tolls that charge people different rates depending on how gas-efficient their cars are.

People are looking at different ways to raise this money. You say what?

BLACK: Absolutely, and those are all very important developments. We've seen six states increase their gas taxes or their revenues, including sales taxes on gasoline, just in 2013 alone. So states are trying to address this issue, but again we are so far behind the eight ball in terms of what we need to be spending to make the significant improvements to help our economy.

YOUNG: Well your association, again the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, you've suggested that signs be put on bridges warning users that they've been deemed structurally deficient. What do you say to people who say, first of all, your organization stands to benefit from these funds because these are jobs for your organization and that there's a little bit of Chicken Little here. How come bridges aren't falling down?

BLACK: Well, most of the time state DOTs certainly will take measures, including posting load limits, to make sure that bridges are safe, and...

YOUNG: Let's be clear, though. You're saying it's the state that determines whether a bridge needs building, not your association.

BLACK: Oh yes, no, no, no. Our members certainly do the work, and we are very proud of what they do, and every American citizen should be concerned about the condition of their roads and bridges. It touches every American life.

YOUNG: That's Alison Black, chief economist with the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. We'll link you to the report she recently authored on the country's crumbling bridges. You can see one near you at hereandnow.org. Alison, thank you.

BLACK: Thank you very much.

YOUNG: And again, a structurally deficient bridge is not necessarily unsafe, but they do need to be maintained and repaired to remain open, and by some estimates, the country would have to spend about $20 billion a year to eliminate the backlog of bridges that need fixing by 2028. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.