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GAO to Congress: 'Substantial' number of U.S. bridges remain in poor condition

Bridges are rated based on National Bridge Inspection Standards set by the National Bridge Inspection Program established by Congress. Based on an inspection, each bridge is assigned a sufficiency rating from a low of 0 to a high of 100. (The Trucker file photo)

The Trucker News Services

6/14/2013

WASHINGTON — There has been limited improvement in bridge conditions in the past decade, but a substantial number of bridges remain in poor condition, an official at the General Accounting Office told members of Congress Thursday.

Of the 607,380 bridges on the nation’s roadways in 2012, one in four was classified as deficient, Phillip R. Herr, the GAO’s managing director of physical infrastructure said in testimony before the Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

“Some are structurally deficient and have one or more components in poor condition and others are functionally obsolete and may no longer be adequate for the traffic they serve,” Herr told senators.

Bridges are rated based on National Bridge Inspection Standards set by the National Bridge Inspection Program established by Congress. The standards detail how bridge inspections are to be completed and with what frequency.

Structurally deficient bridges often require maintenance and repair to remain in service. In contrast, functionally obsolete bridges do not necessarily require repair to remain in service and therefore are unlikely to be inspected by state transportation officials, Herr said.

Bridges are given sufficiency ratings calculated using a formula that reflects structural adequacy, safety, serviceability and relative importance.

Based on an inspection, each bridge is assigned a sufficiency rating from a low of 0 to a high of 100.

Data indicate that the number of deficient bridges has decreased since 2002 even as the number of bridges has increased.

From 2002 to 2012, the number of bridges increased from 591,243 to 607,380. During that same time period, the total number of deficient bridges decreased by 23,357.

The impact of the federal investment in bridges is difficult to measure, Herr said.

“For example, while the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) tracks a portion of bridge spending on a state-by-state basis, the data do not include state and local spending, thus making it difficult to determine the federal contribution to overall expenditures,” he said.

“Understanding the impact of federal investment in bridges is important in determining how to invest future federal resources.”

Overall in 2013, there are now over 600,000 bridges in the U.S. surface transportation system.

“However, the system — including bridges — is under growing strain, and the cost to repair and upgrade it to meet  current and future demands is estimated in the hundreds of billions,” Herr told the subcommittee.

Herr stressed the importance of bridges to the U.S. economy and to the motor carrier industry.

The May 23 collapse of a section of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River, north of Seattle, underscores the importance of maintaining the nation’s infrastructure and the economic impact that a bridge failure can have on a region, he told senators.

He added that according to the Federal Highway Administration information, the Skagit River Bridge that collapsed when struck by an oversized truck is a major commercial route between the U.S. and Canada and serves an average of 71,000 vehicles per day. “Commercial truck traffic comprises about 11 percent of these vehicles, transporting goods between the two countries,” he said.

In the National Bridge Inventory, the Skagit River bridge was classified as functionally obsolete with a sufficiency rating of 46.

Herr reminded senators that MAP-21, the surface transportation bill, consolidated a number of existing highway programs, including the Highway Bridge Program.

Bridge projects are now funded through the National Highway Performance Program (NHPP) or the Surface Transportation Program (STP).

MAP-21 divides each state's total annual federal-aid apportionment principally between NHPP and STP and estimated funding authorized under MAP-21 in fiscal year 2013 is

over $21 billion for NHPP and about $10 billion for STP.

The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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