Infrastructure Report Card: Is There Finally Good News About Bridges?

It points the way to turning the corner on bridge decay.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently released the 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. The study, which grades the condition of all types of infrastructure in the United States, has good news — albeit qualified — for the nation’s bridges, one of the categories covered in the report card.

The study reports that there are almost 620,000 bridges across the United States. Of those, 42% are at least 50 years old, which means they’ve reached or are nearing the end of their useful lives. The average age of all the viaducts in the country is almost 44 years old, which is only six years under that critical half-century marker. What’s more concerning is that approximately 12% of U.S. bridges are more than 80 years old. 

When it comes to structural integrity, just over 46,000, or 7.5%, of the viaducts in the U.S. are considered structurally deficient, which means they are in poor condition. Shockingly, on average, almost 180,000 vehicle trips are taken across structurally deficient bridges daily.

Also, more than 94,000 viaducts in the U.S. have inadequate vertical or horizontal clearances or approach roadway infrastructure. While bridges like this may not be structurally unsound, they don’t meet current traffic demands or safety standards. In many cases, these bridges cause bottlenecks and increased traffic congestion. Crashes are more likely on and around them. These factors make them unsafe, and they have a negative impact on economic and social activity in the communities that surround them.

Another thing to consider: The number of bridges slipping from good to fair condition is increasing, making them one step closer to structural deficiency. 

The good news, as reported by the study, is that the total number of structurally deficient bridges has been declining. In 2019, 7.5% of highway bridges were structurally deficient. That’s down from 12.1% a decade ago. Another positive sign is that the total percentage of bridge deck area considered structurally deficient has decreased from 6.3% in 2016 to 5.5% in 2019.

According to the experts at ASCE, it has taken a concerted effort across all levels of government throughout the United States to reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges. 

Even with all this progress, approximately 230,000 bridges across all 50 states still require significant repair and preservation work. The pace of improvement has slowed to almost zero over the last two years because of pandemic-related work restrictions and budget cuts. 

Recent estimates calculate that it will cost approximately $125 billion to complete all necessary outstanding bridge repairs. The ASCE study reports that spending on bridge rehabilitation will need to increase from $14.4 billion to $22.7 billion annually (approximately 60%). It’s the only way that bridge conditions will improve in a meaningful way.  

At the current spending level, it would take until 2071 to complete all the repairs needed right now. That does not take into account the additional deterioration that will take place during that half century. 

The cost of structurally deficient viaducts goes beyond the price of maintenance, repairs, or replacement. If a bridge inspector identifies any structural deficiency with any part of a bridge, it could be posted for load, weight, and speed restrictions or closed to traffic. In 2019, just over 10% of the bridges in the U.S. had these restrictions placed on them, which is consistent with the percentage over the last few years. Posted bridges can have a big impact on economic activity, making it difficult for people to reach businesses and get to work and for deliveries to take place.

The recent rates of rehabilitation and decay do not represent a sustainable model. The amount of deterioration that’s happening is far greater than the rate of bridge repair, rehabilitation, and replacement.

So, is there any reason for hope? Quite possibly!

It’s related to the fact that averages are merely that: averages. 

The condition of viaducts in different states can vary dramatically. The current percentage of structurally deficient bridges ranges from a low of 1% in Nevada to 22% in Rhode Island. Many of the states that have viaducts in good condition share something in common: They’ve either increased or reformed their gas tax, giving them the funds that they need to get on top of bridge repairs and replacement, something that the federal government has not done.

The ASCE report recommends that the entire United States undertake a systematic preventative maintenance program, similar to the ones used by the states that have the lowest percentage of bridges in poor condition. Instead of waiting for bridges to become structurally deficient or obsolete to repair or replace them, which is expensive, these states focus more on maintaining bridges that are in fair condition. That’s why there’s good news about all those bridges that are rated as fair. While they are only one step away from being structurally deficient, most can be preserved at a fraction of the cost of a deficient one. This is how the states that have the lowest percentage of deficient bridges are winning the race against deterioration. 

While some state and local governments have raised fuel taxes to fund additional bridge work, federal investment in bridges has remained stagnant. The Highway Trust Fund, which pays for many of the nation’s road and bridge projects, has been close to insolvency for almost 10 years. The trust is mostly funded by the federal motor fuels tax. It has remained at 18.3 cents per gallon since 1993. It seems unlikely that this tax will be increased any time soon because of the rising cost of fuel in the U.S. 

Instead, Congress will need to pass, and the president sign into law, a version of the infrastructure bill that has been in discussion for months (and in some form, for more than a decade). It will provide the cash infusion needed for the nation to get ahead of the bridge deterioration issue faced by many states, as reported by the ASCE report card. 

Bridge Masters will continue sharing information on this critical legislation, the condition of bridges across the U.S., and best practices in inspecting and maintaining them. Look out for more information in the months ahead.