Let's start with the good news. Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives the United States a grade for its infrastructure. In 2021, the ASCE gave the grade of C– while in 2017, the grade was a D+. Hey, that's an improvement. The 2021 ASCE report gave bridges a grade of C.
Continuing with the positive spin…
According to the Mercatus Center, a university-based research center at George Mason University, "Eighty-two percent of the states experienced a decline in square meters of bridge surface classified as being in poor condition between 2014 and 2019."
And, from the 2021 report from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA): "…the number of SD [structurally deficient] bridges has declined for the last five years."
They say the first step toward recovery or overcoming a problem is to acknowledge the problem. On that note, despite this good news, the United States must face the facts: We have a bridge problem. This is not a problem that will be solved in one fell swoop—no matter how much money is thrown at it. Improving the infrastructure in the U.S., particularly its bridges, is going to take time and money.
It's easy to get lost in the grades and reports regarding bridge issues. So, let's look at some hard numbers.
There are 618,000 bridges in the U.S. Of those, 220,000 "need structural repair, rehabilitation work or replacement," according to ARTBA. To get a sense of that vast scope, according to ARTBA, "If placed end-to-end, these bridges would stretch over 6,000 miles—long enough to travel from Atlanta to Los Angeles, and continue up to Deadhorse, Alaska, the furthest point north on the state's highway system." (Road trip!)
Bridges in the U.S. are typically designed to have a lifespan of 50 years. At or before that time has passed, bridges need to be rehabilitated, or even retired. Many factors determine the severity of need for repair on a bridge, including how it was maintained. With proper maintenance, a little luck, and more, bridges can function beyond their life span. In fact, many bridges are functional for decades beyond their projected life spans.
According to the ASCE, the average age of a U.S. bridge is 43. Forty percent of America's bridges are 50 years old or older and 15 percent are between 40 and 49 years old. So, even as work is being completed on the 220,000 bridges currently in need of repair, the number of bridges to work on continues to grow.
Stories regarding America's crumbling infrastructure seem to be as regular a feature on the news as sports and weather. It’s easy to tune out the frequent talk about infrastructure issues.
And if no bridges are collapsing, it's even easier to ignore the talk.
It’s important to note that some bridges in the U.S. (and around the world) have collapsed, and others have been shut down. The most recent collapse occurred in June of 2021. There are obviously potentially dangerous and dramatic ramifications of bridges collapsing and being shut down. However, infrastructure, in general, is important, and the poor state of U.S. infrastructure is a drain on all Americans. The 2021 Infrastructure Report Card estimates that "…inadequate infrastructure, like sitting in traffic, hitting a pothole, your power going out, or a water main break, is costing the average American household $3,300.00” per year.
And "…continued underinvestment in infrastructure and the inefficiencies that will result…will cause the loss of $10 trillion in GDP and lead to a decline of more than $23 trillion in business productivity cumulatively over the next two decades if the U.S. does not close the growing gap in the investments needed for bridges, roads, airports, power grid, water supplies, and more." They also add that the inefficiencies will cause the loss of three million jobs by 2039.
These numbers are dramatic, and can seem overwhelming. To make it more personal, consider how much extra time it takes to get to and from somewhere in heavy traffic. Or, the repair you have to make because driving over potholes throws your car out of alignment, etc.
Then, consider bridges, which are essential. David Lawry, a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, says, "When a piece of road fails, you can put a patch on it, you can divert traffic, you can detour…but when a bridge fails, the road is done; you can't go anywhere."
Bridges provide crucial access between areas, and sometimes they are the only link between two points. Remember, while there are famous bridges such as the Brooklyn Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge, Seven Mile Bridge, Mackinac Bridge, etc., many bridges are part of a highway system and commuters may not even recognize when they are on them. Should a bridge fail or be shut down, parts of the highway shut down. Imagine if the highway you regularly use were to be unavailable due to repair for a significant amount of time? (Nightmare!)
But what about bridges in rural areas? The impact of a downed or unusable bridge can be even more dramatic as there are fewer alternative routes. Seventy-one percent of U.S. bridges are in rural areas, and "they make up 79 percent of the bridges rated as poor or structurally unsound" as reported in the New York Times. The article emphasizes, "…smaller bridges in rural areas…have much less traffic [as opposed to major bridges] but are no less vital to a community's ability to function. Advocates for rural communities say the problems with bridges are indicative of a wider lack of connectivity…."
A bridge is a literal link between two areas. They are a popular metaphor, as it's easy to understand what they represent. Their value is also clear. The Hernando DeSoto Bridge connects Tennessee and Arkansas, carrying over 40,000 vehicles per day via I-40 over the Mississippi River. In May of 2021, the bridge was shut down after a crack in a steel support beam was discovered.
The bridge did not reopen until the beginning of August. The closure is very costly. Over-the-road truckers, for example, are adding 76 minutes to an 8-minute commute, at a daily cost of $2.4 million, according to the American Transportation Research Institute.
U.S. bridges need to be improved. The costs of not doing so are exorbitant and impact everyone.
The Infrastructure Report offers a few solutions to improve the state of bridges. Among the solutions is raising the taxes that support the HTF by five cents a year over five years. According to the report, the tax, "…should be tied to inflation to restore its purchasing power, fill the funding deficit, and ensure reliable funding for the future."
Another suggestion is to "prioritize rehabilitating and preserving bridges in fair condition as these bridges can often be preserved at a fraction of the cost of replacement if the work is performed in a timely manner. This approach can reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges to below 5 percent, decrease the maintenance backlog, and address the large number of bridges that have passed or are approaching the end of their design life."
Other notable suggestions include urging "states to prioritize investments on bridges that are most critical…." Critical bridges are highly trafficked, part of freight corridors, or on evacuation routes. Another suggestion is, "continue to fund research into the use of innovative technologies, materials, and construction techniques."
The new infrastructure bill that passed the Senate, but has yet to pass the House of Representatives or become law, includes $550 billion in new spending, or $110 billion per year. Of the $550 billion, $40 billion is for bridge repair, replacement, and rehabilitation. So, if the bill becomes law in its current form, it would go a long way in the effort to improve bridges in the U.S.
It's obvious. The U.S. has a bridge problem. Years of underfunding construction and rehabilitation costs for bridges have led to a great number of structurally deficient bridges. This problem already presents safety issues that could become worse and is costly in terms of time and money lost.
With the massive infrastructure bill working its way through Congress, it seems help is on the way. If and when the infrastructure bill leads to more bridgework for construction companies and general contractors, they can turn to Briq.
Briq, a corporate performance management software built to make the lives of construction financial professionals easier, provides companies with accurate and real-time forecasting abilities, automated workflows, and interconnected systems. This enables better visibility into the workings of a business, which means companies can identify where to save on overhead, minimize risk, and drive more profitable outcomes.
511 Olive Street
Santa Barbara, CA
#24, Mulberry Gardens 2,
Magarpatta City, Pune, Maharashtra