With few exceptions, states are losing the battle with aging bridges in need of repair or replacement.
Even states with low percentages of bridges rated poor are finding it difficult to keep up with bridge and road systems that in many cases are 50 years old or older.
Utah, which ranks fourth for the lowest percentage of poor bridges, programs a bridge for repair or replacement in the year after it drops to a poor rating, completing the project within four or five years. The Utah Department of Transportation notes, though, that the number of bridges falling from good to fair and from fair to poor ratings continues to increase.
“The greatest challenge is completing enough projects in a given year to replace, rehabilitate and preserve enough bridges to stay ahead of the deterioration trends of an aging inventory,” says the UDOT’s survey for this year’s Equipment World Better Roads Bridge Inventory.
Most of the 41 responding state transportation agencies to the survey indicated that funding was a main challenge in keeping up with bridge repairs, even routine maintenance.
“Many problems could be mitigated or avoided if we had the resources and funding to perform timely maintenance work when issues were first discovered,” says the Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development.
The Washington State Department of Transportation says the average age of its bridge network is 50 years and reducing its bridge rating of 4.45 percent poor will require more money than currently planned.
“We have developed a forecast of bridge preservation needs for the next 10 years,” WSDOT says. “We are only funded at 40 percent of the projected needs.”
Raising gas taxes
Several states have increased gas taxes this year to address their aging roads and bridges.
Ohio was one of them. It boosted its gas tax by 10.5 cents and diesel tax by 19 cents per gallon. That increase makes the state’s department of transportation confident of being able to continue to improve its bridges, of which about 60 percent are rated good and 5 percent rated poor.
“The condition of bridges is improving every year,” the Ohio DOT says. The “increase in gas tax will make more money available to spend on the bridges.”
Illinois doubled its gas tax, from 19 cents to 38 cents a gallon. The hike is part of a $45 billion plan over the next six years for improvements to roads, bridges, railways, universities, early childhood centers and other state facilities.
Alabama enacted a 10-cent increase to be incrementally implemented over three years. It took effect September 1 with a 6-cent hike. The state has bridge ratings of 42 percent good, 54 percent fair and 4 percent poor.
“We currently have a low percentage of bridges in poor condition,” ALDOT says, “but our aging inventory has a large percentage of fair bridges that are close to becoming poor.”
And Arkansas’ gas tax rose 3 cents to 28 cents and diesel tax 6 cents to 29 cents per gallon October 1. The state also added a levy of 1.6 percent on the average wholesale price of gas and 2.9 percent on the average wholesale price of diesel.
But previous gas-tax increases in some states still leave a large funding gap.
In 2017, Oregon boosted its gas tax 10 cents a gallon to be phased in incrementally until 2024 to raise a total of $5.3 billion. The state has a 5 percent poor rating and a mounting number of bridges in the fair category, at 66 percent. “At some point, there will be more bridges moving from fair to poor than we have the capacity to deal with through the Major Bridge Maintenance program,” the agency says.
California’s 12-cent gas-tax increase in 2017 – and preserved in 2018 after a failed recall effort – has helped the state tackle its funding gaps, but it will not be enough, Caltrans says.
“Our infrastructure is aging, and funding has historically been insufficient to keep up with the growing demands,” the agency says. “Recent funding efforts will alleviate some of the shortfall, but preservation and rehabilitation needs will continue to increase.”
Finding other revenue
Some states have increased funding without raising gas taxes.
In Missouri, the legislature allocated $50 million this year for bridge repairs. It then added another $300 million in bonds. The bond money was contingent upon the state winning a federal INFRA (Infrastructure for Rebuilding America) grant, which it did. That $81.2 million grant will go toward upgrades to Interstate 70, including replacing the 60-year-old Rocheport Bridge over the Missouri River before it reaches the poor category.
But the needs continue to mount in a state where nearly 9 percent of its bridges are rated poor. “With the age of our inventory and the large number of poor condition bridges, adequate funding to significantly reduce the number of poor condition bridges will be our biggest challenge,” says MoDOT.
In New Mexico, the median age of its bridge inventory is 50 years, reports the state’s DOT. The state, which has 5.1 percent of its bridges rated poor, has seen revenue increases from expanded oil and gas extraction. That added revenue has boosted bridge and road funding.
“However,” the agency says, “this same growth has resulted in significant transportation infrastructure demands throughout this area.”
Kentucky has set out to replace or repair 1,000 bridges over the next six years through its Bridging Kentucky program. The state has bridge ratings of 34 percent good, 59 percent fair and 7 percent poor. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet plans to fund about $700 million in work through what it calls “data-driven investment,” which focuses on the most pressing needs instead of expanding or widening the state’s road network.
Mother Nature strikes
Along with challenges meeting the everyday bridge demands, this year marked a setback for several states due to natural disasters, especially in the Midwest. Record flooding that began in spring has persisted off and on since then, leaving the region along the Mississippi, Missouri and Arkansas rivers with overall damages potentially in the billions of dollars.
“Widespread flood events in March of 2019 damaged or destroyed many bridges and miles of roadway and increased programming needs,” says Nebraska DOT. The agency reports that 27 state bridges were damaged by flooding, and 200 miles of pavement require repairs.
Mayors from 20 towns and cities along the Mississippi River Corridor called on Congress in March to provide $7.85 billion for the area through a revolving loan program.
“We’re not going to solve our problems with grants,” said Davenport, Iowa, Mayor Frank Klipsch. He adds that the country’s largest infrastructure grant program, which allocates $7.1 billion in grants for local and regional projects, comes up short.
“The entire award history of the BUILD program would not even meet one-fourth of the investment needed to bring the nation’s inland waterway system up to a state of good repair, let alone all surface transportation needs of roads, rail, transit and ports,” Klipsch says.
Pleas for help
The mayors’ call joins a rising chorus across the nation for help from Washington, D.C.
With a national infrastructure package dead this year, some are pushing for Congress to at least reauthorize funding before the September 30, 2020, expiration of the FAST Act, which provides funds to states for repairing and maintaining bridges and roads.
On October 7, a group of 150 organizations – including those from the construction industry, manufacturers, engineers, farm groups and road industry associations – sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer pleading for quick action.
“Passing a robust, long-term, on-time surface transportation bill is necessary to meet current infrastructure needs and begin to mitigate our nation’s infrastructure deficit,” reads the letter from the Infrastructure Working Group. Passing the legislation ahead of the deadline, the letter adds, will “avoid costly delays that slow construction schedules and make important projects more costly and more difficult to complete.”
The five states with the lowest percentage of bridges rated “Poor”
1. ARIZONA, 1.2 PERCENT
Arizona remains in the top spot for the second year in a row, slightly reducing its number of “poor” bridges by 0.1 percent from 2018. The state has only 91 “poor” bridges, down from 103 in 2018. The state has a total bridge deck area of 61.8 million square feet, of which 1.26 percent is rated poor. The breakdown of poor bridges is split nearly evenly between interstate and state bridges and city, county and township bridges.
2. NEVADA, 1.3 PERCENT
Nevada edged slightly ahead of Texas this year after tying with the Lone Star State in our 2018 inventory. Nevada had one bridge added to the poor list from last year, for a total of 27. The Nevada DOT says it plans to lower its rate in the coming year. In our survey, the Nevada DOT notes that about half of its bridges are in the “fair” category. Despite the low rate of poor bridges, the survey response said the state’s biggest challenge is a “lack of dedicated bridge preservation funding.”
3. TEXAS, 1.4 PERCENT
Texas had a slight rise in the number of poor bridges, from 1.34 to 1.42 percent. The Texas DOT says, overall, its “bridges are in very good condition.” But it would like to see more bridges move out of the fair category to good. The state’s survey shows 51 percent of its bridges are rated good, with about 48 percent rated fair. The state has increased funding for bridge replacement and rehabilitation over previous levels, according to the survey.
4. UTAH, 1.8 PERCENT
Utah maintains its fourth-place spot for the second year in a row with a 0.9 percent drop in its number of poor bridges. The Utah DOT plans to repair or replace all of its state-owned bridges that are in poor condition within the next five years. “The biggest challenge we face in reducing the number of bridges in poor condition is more bridges dropping from fair to poor condition in a given year than we are able to offset by repairing or replacing existing poor condition bridges,” the UDOT’s survey says. The state’s ratio of good to fair bridges is about 40/60 percent. It plans to complete 19 new bridges this fiscal year and 40 next fiscal year.
5. VERMONT, 2.4 PERCENT
Vermont holds its fifth-place spot again for 2019, with 2.42 percent of its bridges in poor condition, up slightly from last year’s 2.34 percent – a three-bridge increase. One to three bridges have been closed in the state due to deficiency, structural failure or collapse, with plans for repair in the works or already completed. Most of the state’s bridges are rated as good, at 53 percent, with 45 percent rated as fair.
The five states with the highest percentage of bridges rated “Poor”
1. RHODE ISLAND, 23.1 PERCENT
Tired of coming in last place each year, the state legislature enacted the $4.9 billion RhodeWorks plan four years ago, which includes a toll on large commercial trucks that took effect in June 2018. The goal of the 10-year program is to fix more than 150 structurally deficient bridges, and repair another 500 bridges to prevent them from becoming deficient, says RIDOT. That would put the state at a poor rate of less than 10 percent. In April, the state kicked off its largest construction season in history, with 77 new and ongoing projects totaling $715.6 million, to address 177 bridges. The state fended off a challenge in federal court this year by American Trucking Associations on the truck toll and expects the toll to fund about 10 percent of the RhodeWorks plan.
2. WEST VIRGINIA, 19.9 PERCENT
West Virginia moved from third place to second place this year, with a 1.2 percent increase in bridges rated poor. According to the 2018 FHWA Bridge Inventory, about one-fifth of the state’s bridges are poor. Most of its bridges fall into the “fair” category, at 53 percent. The rest, 27 percent, are rated “good.”
3. IOWA, 19 PERCENT
Iowa’s poor bridge rating dropped about 1 percent from last year to move the state from second to third place in this year’s survey. Record flooding this year has not helped matters. But when just looking at Iowa’s 4,161 interstate and state bridges, less than 1 percent are rated poor. The biggest challenge is with its local bridges, which total 19,847. The state recently got a boost of $25.3 million from the federal government because more than 7.5 percent of its bridge deck area is rated poor. The state reports a poor bridge deck area of close to 10 percent. The state also won a $33 million grant that will address 77 bridges under the federal Competitive Highway Bridge Program, which targets bridge repairs in rural areas.
4. SOUTH DAKOTA, 17.1 PERCENT
Another state battling record floods, South Dakota closed more than 10 bridges this past year because of deficiency, structural failure or collapse. “Many are also closed due to failure or flood events in 2019,” says the South Dakota DOT’s survey. Federal disaster aid from FEMA will address many of those bridges. State and interstate bridges, which total 1,795, are in fairly good shape, at 2.6 percent rated poor. But of the 3,895 local bridges, 24 percent are rated poor, and that rate is likely to rise. “Local bridge inventory is aging and deteriorating at a faster rate than can be replaced,” the DOT’s survey says.
5. PENNSYLVANIA, 15.3 PERCENT
Pennsylvania continues to chip away at its poor rating, dropping from 18.2 percent in 2017 to 15.3 percent this year. The PennDOT’s survey notes that as of June, state-owned bridges in poor condition have dropped to 2,893, from a high of 6,034 in 2008. But the state is also losing ground to its aging bridge population. “We must preserve, repair and replace at a greater rate each year to continue our trend of having fewer bridges in poor condition,” the DOT’s survey says. The state has planned for 153 new bridges this fiscal year and another 193 for next fiscal year. But the DOT reports that more than 250 bridges move to poor condition each year. This fiscal year, 28 percent of Pennsylvania’s city, county and township bridges are rated poor. That exceeds the percentage of its bridges rated good, which is only 25 percent. “The age of our infrastructure is creating a backlog greater than our means to address,” the DOT’s survey says. EQW