Bridges built during the post-World War II boom years are facing an increasingly urgent need for repair. Some 210 million trips are taken every day on structurally deficient bridges in our biggest cities, according to a new report. There are so many of those creaky bridges that they even outnumber McDonald's locations, 18,000 to 14,000.
A spokesman at Transportation for America, the nonprofit advocacy group that mined federal statistics to write the report, said it should serve as a "wake-up call."
The problem, said spokesman David Goldberg, is that our transportation legislation "was geared to build the interstate highway system, and that has not done such a good job at ensuring maintenance is done."
Even after the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed 13 in 2007, states continue to divert some of the money meant for bridge repairs to building new highways instead.
"States should be held accountable for reducing the backlog on repair needs before they're given latitude to spend that money on something else," Goldberg said.
An opportunity for accountability, and for putting emphasis on fixing bridges already in existence instead of building new roads, may come with the re-authorization for the surface transportation bill that is currently pending in Congress. Legislators have until March to pass a new bill.
Just because 18,000 bridges in metro areas are "structurally deficient" doesn't mean they're on the verge of collapsing. But decaying bridges may in many cases cause state transportation agencies to step up inspections or even shut down bridges for repairs.
In September, Indiana officials shut down the Sherman Minton Bridge, a major commuter corridor in the Louisville, Ky., area, because of cracks in the structure built in 1962. Since then, 80,000 cars a day have had to find alternate routes to work and school.
Goldberg said stories like the Sherman Minton Bridge are a "cause for concern" because "we have to scramble and make ad hoc provisions to deal with emergency situations. At this stage in the evolution of our highway system, we can count on these crises emerging. So the next bill has to budget for that."
The study ranked Pittsburgh as the major city with the most structurally deficient bridges, some 1,133 of them. Every day in Los Angeles, some 34 million trips cross similarly lacking bridges. In and around New York City, another 17.5 million cars and trucks cross deficient bridges.