MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the condition of bridges around the United States.
NICK EICHER, HOST: In Minneapolis in 2007, the Interstate-35 bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed during rush hour. Thirteen people died.
Since then, politicians and transportation groups have sounded the alarm about the safety of other American bridges and highways.
REICHARD: President Trump campaigned on a promise to set aside more federal money for infrastructure. So far that hasn’t happened.
But a new report has renewed calls to repair the nation’s infrastructure. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has our story.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Dick Hall is chairman of the Mississippi Transportation Commission. His state has a growing list of bridges in need of urgent repairs.
HALL: We have 1,893 of them in need of repair or replacement at a cost of about a billion dollars with a B.
Hall says the problem is especially bad in Mississippi’s rural counties. In those counties shrinking populations mean local governments have less tax money to maintain bridges. Last year, the federal Department of Transportation instructed Mississippi to close the worst local bridges—100 in all.
HALL: It is an absolute miracle that a school bus, an ambulance or something like that hadn’t cracked into one of these things. It’s really, really bad.
The state also has nearly 3-hundred state and federal bridges that need maintenance. For safety, state officials reduced weight limits on some of them. And that has a negative impact on agriculture and manufacturing.
HALL: If you go to load your truck and you can’t put but two-thirds of the material on your truck that you could before it off, it’s going to cost you a lot of money.
In a new report, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association—or ARTBAH—finds Mississippi isn’t the only state struggling with a backlog of bridge repairs. The association says thousands of U.S. bridges are compromised.
Out of the more than 600,000 bridges across the country, nearly a tenth are “structurally deficient.” Alison Black, ARTBA’s chief economist, told NPR affiliate WBUR that means 50,000 bridges need what inspectors call crucial repairs.
BLACK: These are bridges where one of the key elements during the bridge inspection is rated in poor or worse condition and usually that’s either the deck or the superstructure above a bridge or the sub structure underneath.
Despite the needed maintenance, these bridges are still open and deemed safe for travel. While they await repair, drivers cross them nearly 200 million times a day. Some of these bridges are well-known. For instance, ARTBA labels New York’s Brooklyn Bridge as structurally deficient.
The ARTBA report also finds that another one-third of U.S. bridges need some sort of maintenance, although the repairs aren’t as urgent.
Alison Black says at the current rate of repair it would take 80 years to fix all of the bridges in the United States.
BLACK: So every year bridges are fixed and as they are inspected they are removed from the structurally deficient category. So overall this past year we reduced that number by about 550 bridges so if we continue at this slow pace that’s where it’s going to take over 80 years to fix them.
Black argues the federal government needs to increase spending on infrastructure to begin chipping away at the bridge backlog.
But not all transportation experts agree with ARTBA’s alarm. Aaron Renn is an infrastructure policy expert at the Manhattan Institute. He says reports like this are overblown.
RENN: There are always going to be a certain number of bridges that are at the end of their lifespan and shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a catastrophe.
Renn says instead of increasing infrastructure spending, the federal and state governments need to prioritize maintaining existing bridges.
RENN: Too often what we see is that states want to spend money on shiny new projects… as opposed to focusing on basic maintenance, which is not nearly as sexy and is actually an inconvenience to drivers when you’re doing it. But it’s the sort of thing that you really need to do, so really focusing in on the maintenance.
To raise more money for maintenance, Renn says many states need to update their gas taxes. In Mississippi the state gas tax hasn’t increased in 30 years. Renn also suggests implementing a new tax. Because vehicles today are much more fuel efficient, drivers fill up less. To adjust, Renn suggests states tax mileage.
RENN: The idea is to link the amount of money that you’re paying to the amount of miles that you’re driving, not the amount of gasoline that you’re consuming.
In the meantime, Mississippi’s Dick Hall says state lawmakers need to find new revenue sources—fast.
HALL: Good as the Lord is, I don’t think He’s going to be just popping it out of heaven. It’s just got to come from somewhere.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsburg.