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Two Pessimistic Outlooks on Fixing the Nation's Bridges

Brian Naylor of NPR and Stephen Lee Davis of Transportation for America examine different aspects of the government's inability to ensure that bridges are in a state of good repair.
June 4, 2013, 9am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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NPR'S Scott Simon introduces the topic (on the audio version) with this somber revelation: "[C]hances are 1 in 9 that a bridge you drive over has been deemed structurally deficient, or basically in bad shape, by the federal government." Worse yet, "there is no consensus on how to tackle the problem or pay for proposed solutions".

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge, NPR's Brian Naylor interviews Barry LePatner, a New York real estate and construction lawyer and author of Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward, that analyzed the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minn. in August, 2007.

LePatner draws similarities between the two bridge collapses. Like the I-5 bridge between Mount Vernon and Burlington in Skagit County, Wash., both were 'fracture-critical'. "[I]t was designed cheaply and quickly in the that there was no redundancy", he states. If one piece fails - the whole bridge could collapse.

What happened in Washington and Minneapolis, he says, is a harbinger of what might happen to thousands of other bridges in the nation.

"When you combine those poor bridges that must have traffic limited on them because they can't support the weight as originally designed ... with a fracture critical design ... we have a very toxic combination that imperils the traveling public," he says.

The discussion turns to lack of funding due to failure to raise the gas tax in 20 years, depriving the Highway Trust Fund of necessary funds to pay "the federal share of road and bridge construction".

President Obama has called for spending $50 billion to pay for bridge and road construction, as well as setting up a national infrastructure bank — an idea that's gained little traction so far in Congress.

Stephen Lee Davis won't make you feel any better when you travel the nation's roads and bridges. His focus is less than the I-35W bridge collapse eight years ago and more on federal transportation legislation written last year. He reminds us that "federal lawmakers took a gamble and eliminated the nation’s dedicated bridge fund last summer."

Instead, Congress scrapped the existing bridge repair program and directed USDOT to work with states to cooperate on setting measurable targets for things like bridge condition — but without significant penalties for failure.

Under MAP-21, Congress decided to focus the former bridge repair dollars almost exclusively on a narrow set of roadways known as the National Highway System (NHS)

The fund was established in the original "Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA)" by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y) in 1991. In 2008, the National Highway Bridge Reconstruction and Inspection Act was passed by Congress, referencing the Minneapolis bridge collapse in 2007.

When MAP-21 is reauthorized next summer, will Congress point to the Skagit River Bridge collapse and re-establish this fund to tackle the "toxic combination" that Mr. LePatner describes as the condition of many of American bridges today?

Full Story:
Published on Saturday, June 1, 2013 in NPR
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