Fixing Structurally Deficient Bridges Does not Require More Funding

The Skagit River bridge collapse in Washington State has focused attention on the state of America’s bridges. But as I stated on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams bridges are in substantially better shape than 5 years ago. And more funding by itself will not improve the nation’s bridges.

The 2013 report, from advocacy group Transportation for America, paints an overly negative picture of bridges to justify additional transportation spending. First, bridge conditions are improving. In 2008 there were more than 71,000 deficient bridges; in 2012 there were only slightly over 66,000 deficient bridges. Five thousand fewer structurally deficient bridges in only five years is a major accomplishment! More importantly, the number of structurally deficient bridges has decreased substantially over the last 20 years from almost 120,000, 21 % of all bridges in 1992, to slightly more than 66,000, or 11% of all bridges, today.

Next, there is little evidence that states that spend more money on transportation have bridges in better condition. Take the examples of Georgia and Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has the highest number of structurally deficient bridges in the country: 5,543 out of 6,043 or approximately 25% of all bridges. But Pennsylvania also has one of the highest gas taxes in the country—51 cents per gallon. So why doesn’t Pennsylvania have better bridges? The state’s transportation organizations have prioritized rural highway expansion over bridge maintenance and repair. Higher administrative costs reduce the amount of funds used for infrastructure. And union wages leave less revenue for highways. Georgia, on the other hand, has one of the lowest gas taxes in the country; its per capita transportation spending is 49th of the 50 states. Yet only 6% of Georgia’s bridges are structurally deficient. Why? Georgia has prioritized bridge maintenance and repair while Pennsylvania has not. Weather and age of infrastructure are also factors but clearly GA is spending its existing revenue much more efficiently than Pennsylvania.

The report also laments the elimination of a dedicated fund for bridge repair in last year’s Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) surface transportation bill. But with 25 states and the District of Columbia having more than 10% of their bridges structurally deficient, the program was hardly a rousing success. And different states have different needs. States with the most structurally deficient bridges certainly need to concentrate spending on bridges but states such as Nevada and Florida with only 2% of total bridges structurally deficient could better use this funding for other purposes. Why should these states be forced to use funding on bridges when they have maintained their bridges in such good condition?

Some politicians recommend providing states with the most structurally deficient bridges extra funding to fix their bridges? But this penalizes states that have prioritized bridges and rewards states that have spend their funding on more trivial purposes. Rewarding bad behavior creates one bizarre incentive program!

The report is useful in highlighting the number of structurally deficient bridges and suggesting that states should prioritize state of good repair funding. But the case for additional funding will remain poor until states use their existing funding more wisely. The goal for any state DOT is to deliver the most value. Increasing funding for an inefficient operation is a raw deal for taxpayers.