Bridges ARE Better

How the bridge infrastructure sector has managed to improve while others have continued to decline.

According to the 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the overall condition of infrastructure across the United States earns a dismal C- grade. The nation’s bridges got a slightly better C rating, which is similar to what they earned in previous reports, but the grades for many other sectors fell.

Major and critical infrastructure categories earned absolutely terrible grades:

  • Aviation: D+. The ASCE study cites capacity challenges as the primary reason for awarding airports a near fail. During the two-year period before the coronavirus pandemic, the number of flights taken by people from U.S. airports increased from 964.7 million to 1.2 billion per year, yet flight service only increased from 9.7 to 10.2 million flights per year. Terminal, gate, and ramp availability is also not meeting the needs of a growing airline passenger base, especially as travel is returning to normal levels. This was partly the reason that airline passengers experienced almost 96 million delay minutes at airports in 2019.
  • Drinking water: C-. More than 2 million miles of underground pipes deliver water to millions of people across the nation. Currently, the massive system is aging and underfunded. The study reports that there is a water main break somewhere in the U.S. every two minutes. This contributes to an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water being wasted every day. Much like with bridge infrastructure, there are small signs of progress and improvement in water distribution systems. Federal financing has increased, and water utilities are raising rates to fund repairs and new construction. Some of this activity can be traced back to the awareness generated by the urgent water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Increased funding for the nation’s bridges can be similarly traced to the many structural failures that have occurred across the nation over the last decade.
  • Hazardous waste: D+. Approximately 35 million tons of dangerous materials are handled every year across the country. However, that isn’t the issue causing this sector to earn a dismal D grade. There’s plenty of capacity to handle new waste for decades to come. The problem is with old hazardous waste currently being stored at approximately 1,300 Superfund sites. The budget to process this waste has been flat for more than a decade, which means most of it could remain stored in hazardous conditions for decades to come.
  • Levees: D. According to the report, 17 million people in the United States live or work behind a levee. They protect $2.3 trillion worth of property, approximately 4,500 schools, and countless businesses in a wide range of industries. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that it will take $21 billion to improve and maintain the moderate to high-risk levees that it manages, which represent only about 15% of all the levees in the U.S. As hurricanes and extreme storms have resulted in increased flooding, it’s becoming more urgent than ever to raise funding levels for levee repairs.
  • Public parks: D+. The ASCE study reports that Americans visit parks and recreational facilities on average more than twice a month. There are approximately 10 acres of public park land per 1,000 residents of the United States, which makes them incredibly accessible. Despite being popular with Americans, though, investment in parks is lagging. This is resulting in deteriorating bridges, trails, parking lots, drinking water fountains, and more. State and local parks are dealing with a more than $65 billion deferred maintenance backlog, which has resulted in an almost 10% increase in the backlog of needed park repairs. 
  • Roads: D. Roads are a critical part of America’s infrastructure. They are integral to moving people and goods from place to place. According to ASCE, 40% of the nation’s road system is in poor or mediocre condition, and motorists spend more than $1,000 every year in wasted time and fuel. On top of this, approximately 36,000 people die on the nation’s roads annually, and the cause of many of these fatalities can be traced back to poor or inadequate roads. The issues with an aging road system will only increase as more driverless cars enter the market.
  • Transit: D-. Public transit is essential to people living in communities across the United States. It provides access to jobs, schools, shopping, healthcare, and other services for the 45% of Americans who do not own their own vehicles. Despite the need for public transportation by so many people, much of the infrastructure that supports it, including trains, buses, and transit stations, is aging out. Most transit agencies aren’t funded adequately to keep their current systems in decent working order, much less improve them. Currently, according to ASCE, there is a $176-billion shortfall in transit funding, and it’s expected to grow to more than $270 billion by the end of this decade. This will lead to further decline unless funding increases.

Many other infrastructure categories, including wastewater, stormwater, schools, and energy are in equally critical condition.

So, how has the bridge infrastructure category managed to improve over the last decade, when so many other sectors have declined?

Bridges earned a C grade on the report card, above the C- average across all infrastructure categories. The number of structurally deficient bridges has declined over time, and their overall condition has continued to improve. Part of the reason for this is the commitment that many states have made to turning things around. They’ve raised their gas taxes to pay for bridge maintenance, repairs, and new construction. Many have found creative new ways to come up with additional funding.

This has enabled states to catch up on their backlog of bridges that were structurally deficient and focus more on proactive maintenance of viaducts that are not in as bad shape. This type of maintenance is less expensive than what needs to be done on older, structurally deficient bridges. Over time, most experts believe that the amount of money that it will take to maintain bridges could go down, enabling states to reduce fuel taxes and other sources of funding.

Hopefully, new federal infrastructure funding will allow the states with the country’s worst bridges to play catch up and over time, begin doing more preventative maintenance. A large enough infusion of cash could help other infrastructure sectors do the same thing, finally pulling the United States out of the infrastructure rut that it has been in for decades. It could make the country as competitive as China and other nations with newer, better maintained, and dependable resources.