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New Strategy Needed For America'S Bridges

Built to last 50 years, the bulk of the nation's 590,000 bridges are 43 years old

Built to last 50 years, the bulk of the nation's 590,000 bridges are 43 years old. And 74,000 bridges (12.4%) are classified as structurally deficient, meaning that one or more aspects of a bridge's structural condition require attention. Meanwhile, truck traffic has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, and the trucking industry is pushing for heavier loads.

"We are facing a perfect storm regarding our bridges," says Malcolm T. Kerley, chief engineer with the Virginia Department of Transportation. Testifying on behalf of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, Kerley told members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit that "current funding levels are not adequate for the job at hand. A huge backlog of bridge needs remains."

Kerley told lawmakers that states are investing substantially more on bridges than is provided under the federal highway bridge program. For example, in 2004, $10.5 billion was invested in bridge rehabilitation by all levels of government--more than twice the $5.1 billion apportioned through the federal bridge program that year.

"States need federal funding to reduce the slippage of bridges into the structurally deficient category," Kerley says. "And we all get more bang for our taxpayer buck by preserving a bridge early in its life rather than by having to completely replace it later on down the road. In order to accomplish this, states need to be able to fund a wider range of projects than just their lowest-rated bridges.

"Current law requires states to address the worse deficient bridges first, but this approach doesn't work" Kerley testified. "If we had all the funding we needed, states could immediately reconstruct or rehabilitate all structurally deficient bridges--fixing the worst first, while simultaneously investing to prevent an even larger number of bridges from deteriorating just enough to push them over the edge to structural deficiency. We call these cusp bridges, those bridges which we can prevent from becoming structurally deficient."

Kerley said that cusp bridges that are not yet structurally deficient begin to deteriorate before states can address their problems. And, since there is not enough money to fix all the deficient bridges before others deteriorate into this category, it becomes a constant game of catch up.