Think U.S. bridge infrastructure is in rough condition? Check out Europe’s.

Europe’s infrastructure is crumbling at a rapid rate. The U.S. can learn from the E.U.’s failure to address it.

There is a great deal of discussion about bridge infrastructure in the United States, especially now that Congress is willing to approve funding for it and President Biden has backed the initiative.

This has many people questioning whether it’s an issue unique to the United States or if there is a bridge infrastructure crisis in other parts of the world. The truth is that in rapidly developing countries like China, most of the bridges are cutting-edge, state-of-the-art structures. However, in older, less economically dynamic parts of the world, like Europe, bridge infrastructure is in a condition similar to — or worse than — that in the United States.

For example, France has more than 800 bridges that are at risk of collapsing and could need to be closed down at any time. This was discovered in an audit commissioned by the French government. It also found that a third of the 12,000 bridges maintained by the French government are seriously in need of repairs. 

Did you know: The American Society of Civil Engineers Infrastructure Report Card monitors the condition of all types of infrastructure, including bridges, across the United States? It has kept the issue front and center. No similar comprehensive reporting exists for infrastructure across Europe.

Europe’s aging infrastructure and the Marshall Plan.

Much of Europe’s current bridge infrastructure was built after World War II, as part of the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan was an American initiative that provided aid to Europe and jump-started the continent’s infrastructure boom in the 1950s and 1960s. The U.S. government provided nearly $12 billion worth of aid to European countries to help them rebuild after the devastating conflict, which is nearly $100 billion in today’s dollars.

The bridges built during that period are now more than 50 years old, putting them beyond their useful lives. The fact that they currently carry more and heavier vehicular traffic than they were designed to handle adds to the dangerous situation and level of risk to the public.

Another issue raised by engineers is the concern that the reinforced concrete used in European bridges constructed after the war could be deteriorating faster than was expected. This makes the aging structures even more vulnerable.

The scope of the European bridge crisis.

The severity of Europe’s bridge crisis — and the European Union’s inability to address it — is best represented by the collapse of Genoa’s Morandi Bridge. The bridge was known to be structurally unsound before the collapse. Experts in the Italian Parliament, bridge industry, and academia expressed their concerns about the deterioration of the structure and the danger that it posed. Despite this, little was done to repair the bridge before it came down. 

Worse, according to Italian officials, there are thousands of similar bridges in Italy that are at risk, and they are not being adequately repaired either.

Germany’s Leverkusen bridge shows that economic prosperity doesn’t make the country immune from infrastructure issues. The bridge was closed to heavy vehicles in 2012, when cracks were discovered in its concrete. The problem still isn’t resolved due to problems related to building a replacement structure. For almost a decade, delivery vehicles have had to find alternate ways to cross the Rhine. This has resulted in significant delays, expense, and productivity issues, which will likely continue until well into 2023, when a new bridge is completed.

The bridge funding crisis.

Americans have been frustrated for a long time about the U.S. government’s inability to address the nation’s infrastructure crisis. “Infrastructure Week” has been an ongoing joke about the lack of action taken by Congress and the White House on this issue. Believe it or not, the European Union has done even less about solving its infrastructure problems.

The European Union is limited in how much can be spent on bridges and other types of infrastructure. It has absolute rules governing these things. Many E.U. critics question whether these spending limits should exist at all if they are putting people at risk. If the constraints prevent Europeans from spending money to have safe roads and bridges, do the rules make sense?

The United States bridge crisis is not as severe as that in Europe because U.S. states have more autonomy on their spending abilities than the countries that are part of the European Union. Many states have taken the initiative and spent money on repairing their own bridges, which has reduced the scope of the crisis in many parts of the U.S. Add to this the fact that the federal government has greater flexibility on how it can fund infrastructure projects than the E.U. This is how the United States government has finally come to an agreement on repairing and replacing bridges and other infrastructure. 

So far, the E.U. has been able to come up with minimal emergency funding. Much like the United States government during the Trump administration, it has explored guarantee options that could attract private funding, but not much has come of it. 

The European Union must do what the United States has done and change the rules or find creative ways to address its daunting infrastructure challenge. Otherwise, it will be putting its citizens in danger and limiting its ability to compete economically with global powerhouses like China. It would be a shame for more people to die and business to be interrupted because E.U. officials failed to act.

The countries that make up the E.U. could learn a lesson from the actions taken over the last few years by U.S. state governments and more recently, by the federal government that have helped save American lives and keep businesses running smoothly.