The 3 things needed right now to repair our nation’s bridges, according to 12 DOTs

Updated Mar 2, 2015
After the I-35 bridge collapse in 2007, the Minnesota DOT was able to streamline the environmental revenue process from years to months in order to expedite replacement.After the I-35 bridge collapse in 2007, the Minnesota DOT was able to streamline the environmental revenue process from years to months in order to expedite replacement.

The nation’s infrastructure system can be likened to an economic circulatory system – giving us freedom, opportunity and mobility—and this should not be taken for granted, said former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves during a recent infrastructure conference. “We should never undervalue the greatness and freedom our nation’s roads provide,” says Graves, now president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations. “This means understanding highways and bridges aren’t free—and they certainly aren’t cheap. It also means there’s no solution to the transportation-funding challenge that will be free.”

Graves’ words are echoed by state transportation officials responding this past fall to our exclusive annual Bridge Inventory. In fact, their comments followed three main themes: the lack of necessary funding, the impact of environmental regs, and why putting out fires by responding only to bridge failures is a completely wrong-headed approach. Here’s what they told us:

1. Increase highway funding now

Chronic underfunding of the nation’s infrastructure system has continued to impede federal, state and local transportation agencies’ ability to maintain, repair and rebuild highways and bridges. In fact, 91 percent of states responding to the Bridge Inventory said “funding availability” was their greatest challenge in decreasing the number of problem bridges. These Departments of Transportation are now relying on temporary legislation providing $10.8 billion to the Highway Trust Fund through May, a kick-the-can move that Congress made last summer after being unable to agree on just exactly how—and how much—to fund the highway system.

While indicating that Colorado has been able to address its number of deficient bridges in the short term, “long term funding to maintain the system has not been addressed,” says Joshua Laipply with the state’s department of transportation. Notes Jason Arndt with the Delaware DOT: “The problem is funding, resources and increased restrictions that delay projects.”

“Funding will restrict how far down the [bridge] priority list we reach,” says David Sttele with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. “There are 1,050 bridges on the local system that need replacing and we have federal funding to replace 20 to 30 per year,” adds Laurie Schultz with the South Dakota DOT. “Insufficient funding is a major restriction for local governments.”

Some states have opted to develop ways to increase funding on their own. Last year, 66 bills were introduced across the country, 24 transportation-related bills were approved, and funding legislation was approved in 11 states, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. Of those states, both Rhode Island and New Hampshire passed state gas tax increases.

Rhode Island, for example, enacted legislation that directs revenues from vehicle fees and rental car taxes to the state highway maintenance fund, increasing the gas tax by approximately 1 cent in 2015. And Alabama will issue a $509 million state highway bond issue this year.

2. Eliminate environmental red tape

Although funding is a major obstacle to the repair and rebuilding of U.S. bridges, environmental restrictions often severely slow down the process. Environmental reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) can sometimes take years, and sometimes more than a decade.

For the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, “environmental and regulatory restrictions are our greatest challenges,” the agency reports in the Bridge Inventory.

David Steele, branch manager for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s Division of Maintenance, notes “bridges that are a habitat for ‘endangered’ or ‘protected’ species can only be worked on during certain times of the year.”

“On some local bridge projects, local owners must spend more of their federal funding on environmental issues. All of these reasons drive up the cost per structure, which results in fewer projects being awarded each year.” says Paul Kulseth with the Kansas DOT. “We have had to mitigate by modifying our standard designs or by specifying different structure types,” he says. “On some local bridge projects, local owners must spend more of their federal funding on environmental issues. All of these reasons drive up the cost per structure, which results in fewer projects being awarded each year.”

Bernie Carrasco, bridge inspection engineer for the Texas DOT, points out that the length of time to clear environmental restrictions especially on historic bridges hinders the state’s program to remove structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges from the state’s infrastructure system.

But there’s at least one example of how environmental reviews can get on the expressway if the will is there: just two months after the collapse of Minnesota’s I-35 bridge in August 2007, the Minnesota DOT entered into a contract for bridge design and construction. During this time, MnDOT was able to complete the entire environmental review process while holding this project to the same standards required of any project similar in scope and scale. This expediency showed that in emergencies, the timeframe necessary for environmental review can be reduced drastically from several years to several weeks.

3. Don’t wait for bridges to fail

Don Cooney with the Infrastructure Project Management Administration for the Washington, D.C., Department of Transportation’s Asset Management Divisions, notes the process for programming, consultant selection, and design and advertising can take several years, thus requiring preventive maintenance to keep a bridge in service.

“Preservation treatments and rehabilitations are key to our system in order to prevent additional bridges from becoming structurally deficient,” says Joshua Sletten with the Utah DOT. Money spent on “preservation treatments prevent or extend the time until much more costly replacements are needed,” he says.

“Bridge replacement, preservation and routine maintenance need to be made the primary focus of state and federal funds,” says the Oklahoma DOT. “We need to plan on making bridges more maintenance free and focus less on architectural aspects,” adds Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s Steele.

And that’s not all

State transportation officials had several other things on their wish lists. “Streamline federal program requirements and give states more flexibility in how to best use the federal funds that we get,” says Missouri’s Koenig, a sentiment echoed by Lee Ford with the South Carolina Department of Highways. And Kathy Keller with the Ohio DOT adds “innovative ways to generate funds” to the list.