Monday, May 27, 2013

Op-Ed: Increasing Funding for Infrastructure Replacement in Rural Areas

The recent collapse of the I-5 Bridge over the Skagit River in Washington State has brought further attention to aging and failing infrastructure throughout the country.  The bridge was actually collapsed due to a collision with a truck carrying drilling equipment higher than the posted clearance of the bridge, but nevertheless, according to the 2013 Infrastructure Report Card from ASCE, the American Society of Civil Engineers, 4.7% of the 7,840 bridges in Washington are structurally deficient.  21.6% of Washington’s bridges are functionally obsolete, meaning that they are narrower than currently standard, have a load limit imposed, and are usually beyond their theoretical design life.  According to the Federal Highway Administration, 30% of the nation’s bridges are beyond their 50-year design lives, and the average age of bridges across the country is 42 years old.

This, unfortunately, is a national and ongoing trend.  The Minneapolis I-35 Bridge over the Mississippi River which collapsed in 2007 was also given a “structurally deficient” rating.  The United States has a total of 607,380 bridges, but many of these have reached or are reaching the limit of their designed life.  Although the number of structurally deficient bridges in the U.S. has decreased by over 10,000 bridges since 2005, there are still over 66,749 deficient bridges left that need to be repaired or replaced.  This number accounts for over one in nine bridges in the United States!  Because of structural deficiencies and functional obsolescence, the ASCE gave the nation’s bridges a C+ rating.  We need to get our priorities straight in order to keep our infrastructure usable and safe.

In fact, in order to eliminate the problem of backlogged bridge construction problems by 2028, the nation would need to invest over $20 billion annually, but are only getting half that currently.  Ramping up funding for the purpose of repairing and replacing these bridges is essential to the security of the nation’s transportation system.

In addition, the bridges are mainly in rural areas: over 58,000 of structurally deficient bridges and over 44,000 functionally obsolete bridges.  Funding for rural areas to retrofit bridges either has to come from state budgets or federal grants, but often, these bridges, because they are not as well traveled, get little attention.  Funding sources need to be created in order for these bridges to be repaired.  Many of these bridges also are used for transporting food and other goods from farms located in these rural areas.  The loss of a bridge due to structural reasons or other load limits imposed on older bridges could seriously affect the economy of a small town or county.

Rural counties with percentage of structurally deficient bridges.
Courtesy: The Daily Yonder

While only 20% of people live in rural America, the routes these bridges occupy are likely to cause large transportation issues should the bridge collapse or be structurally deficient to the point that a severe load limit must be placed that would prevent the crossing by shipments of food, raw materials, or other goods.  Detours are likely to be long, mileage wise, and cause large backups in areas that aren't suited to carrying that much traffic.  Many of these places sometimes only have three or four routes out of town, and cutting off one means serious headaches for residents.

Delaying these improvements would be a detriment to the people of rural America, who are dependent on this form of transportation.  While we promote other modes for people travelling to and from work, we still have not put forward many solutions to the growing issues of fundamental transportation for long-distance and freight movement.  Rural areas are dependent on semis for goods moving both to and from urban areas and the personal vehicle for moving people the same distances.  This means that the infrastructure in place has a huge effect not only on whether a farmer can get his goods to market, but whether that farmer can get medical attention when he is injured or ill.  The need for reliable infrastructure will not go away with the implementation of a multi-modal transportation system, so we should not neglect infrastructure that took decades to build.

Current funding models for "off-system" bridge replacement, require that the state foot the bill for the replacement.  Then, the FHWA will allow the state to take 80% of the costs and put it towards their costs on a highway system bridge.  For state and local governments that cannot afford to begin to replace this huge amount of bridges, footing the bridge construction costs and only getting 80% back later is not a good investment.  Local and state governments need a way to pay for 58,000 bridges, and this is not going to provide the funding.

Besides increasing the amount invested in bridge replacement and repair nationally to a level that will catch up with the number of aging bridges, federal and state governments need to create a special fund for rural areas to plan and pay for bridge replacement on the regional scale.  They also need to implement a risk-based prioritization model is also essential to the repair of these bridges.  The ASCE recommends that the nation set a goal to decrease the number of deficient bridges by 75% by 2020, but the number of structurally deficient bridges in rural areas should also be addressed.

The gas tax is drying up.  There is less money available for these kinds of repairs because of the increase of vehicle fuel efficiency and the need for major maintenance on roads everywhere.  This money will have to be allotted not as an expenditure of revenue from the gas tax, but from an actual budget allocation not dependent on vehicle travel.

As an aside, the 2013 Infrastructure Report Card is a great read for all sorts of other issues, from aviation infrastructure to waste management.

This post was checked by Gabe Rousseau.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.