Fixing America's Bridges
- Bridges, and the roads they connect, are considered the backbone of America’s vast transportation system.
- National bridge conditions have improved, though an estimated 47,054 bridges were considered to be in “poor condition” in 2018.
- Most bridges are owned by state and local entities; the federal government and private sector own only 2%.
America’s network of bridges and roads are essential to the economy. In 2017, drivers logged 3.2 trillion miles, and 11.5 billion tons of freight was moved solely by truck on the country’s roads and bridges. Urban bridges support 73% of all traffic on bridges. Half of all U.S. bridges are owned by local agencies, states own about 48%, and the federal government and private sector together own 2%.
As bridges age, states and localities face the costs of extra maintenance or replacing them. As of 2018, there were 47,054 bridges classified as being in “poor condition,” which means the bridge may need more frequent inspections, closer monitoring, or weight restrictions to make sure it is safe for public travel. Until recently, these bridges were called “structurally deficient.” When Congress next renews federal surface transportation programs, it will likely consider policies aimed at improving the condition of bridges more quickly.
status of bridge conditions
States and other bridge owners generally must inspect public bridges at least every two years. They classify bridges as being in good, fair, or poor condition, and the Federal Highway Administration collects the data in a national bridge inventory. States can use this information to fund bridge projects that are most urgent or important.
Nationally, bridge conditions have improved in recent years. According to the Congressional Research Service, “the proportion of all highway bridges classified as structurally deficient is the lowest in decades,” though conditions vary around the country. In 2017, 1.6% of bridges in Texas were considered structurally deficient, compared to 23.3% of bridges in Rhode Island. CRS also reported that most structurally deficient bridges are in rural areas.
Many states have made concerted efforts to address their bridge infrastructure through state bridge bundling programs. Missouri’s bridge bundling program rehabilitated or replaced about 800 bridges, at a cost-savings of $500 million.
Federal funding for state and local bridge projects comes primarily from formula programs authorized in surface transportation acts. Congress gives states discretion in how to spend these funds. Bridge projects also are eligible for other discretionary transportation grant programs. Some states have used federal credit programs to help finance large-scale bridge projects, such as the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement in New York and the Ohio River Bridges project between Indiana and Kentucky.
Congress has recently increased federal funding available for bridge repair and replacement projects. The fiscal year 2018 appropriations provided $225 million in competitive grants for rural states that bundled multiple bridge projects together. Eighteen states received the grants.
This past summer, the Committee on Environment and Public Works unanimously reported a $287 billion highway bill reauthorization ahead of the current law’s expiration on September 30, 2020. The bill would create a new competitive grant program aimed at fixing deteriorating bridges and those that do not meet current design standards. Over five years, the bill authorizes $3.3 billion in general appropriations and $3.3 billion from the Highway Trust Fund for this program. It is designed so that large bridge projects will receive 50% of the funds from the trust fund. At least one grant will go to every state that submits a qualified application.
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