Wait a Minute: Our Bridges Aren’t Falling Down!

We’ve talked a lot about the infrastructure crisis in the U.S., arguing we are significantly under investing in our bridges, roads, and highways. Adrian and I discuss this extensively in our book Mobility First. Our colleagues have also made similar points (see all our work here). Sometimes, it’s easy to forget there is another side of the story.

Jack Shafer at recently wrote an interesting and worthwhile article questioning the magnitude of the infrastructure crisis. Several of his points are worth considering, and I even share some of his skepticism. For example, just because a bridge is structurally deficient doesn’t mean it’s falling down.

A “structurally deficient” bridge can safely stay in service if weight limitations are posted and observed and the bridge is monitored, inspected, and maintained. A bridge designed in the 1930s could be deemed “functionally obsolete” because it’s narrower than modern standards dictate or because its clearance over a highway isn’t up to modern snuff, not because it’s in danger of tumbling down. (The Department of Transportation’s 2004 inventory found 77,796 U.S. bridges structurally deficient and 80,632 functionally obsolete, for a totally of 158,428 deficient bridges.)

None of this is to suggest that we needn’t worry about repairing or maintaining bridges, only to observe that the state of the nation’s bridges ain’t as dire as the press makes it out. If you’ve read this far, you like the scent of my Web page or you care about infrastructure, so I’ll continue. Let’s say the federal government spends billions in stimulus cash both to bring 1930s bridges up to 2009 standards and to rescue other bridges from their deficiencies. What are the chances that the states that handle some of that money will spend it in an accountable fashion? Not good.

Jack also correctly points out that we may have a number of bridges and roads that simply aren’t as useful as they were in the past because the economy has changed and its travel needs with it. So, every bridge (or road) doesn’t need to be repaired or brought up to higher standards. Maybe it can be torn down altogether, saving the expense of maintaining wasteful infrastructure.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.