On August 1, 2007, the nation awoke to its hidden infrastructure crisis: Mid-rush hour, the I-35 West Bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 and injuring 144. Suddenly, news reports across the country called attention to the deficiencies of local bridges.
One year later, attention has abated, but the problem hasn't. And despite increased investments, significantly more funding will be needed to repair all of the state's insufficient bridges.
Here in Pennsylvania, we have more problematic bridges than any other state — more than 6,000 of PA's state-owned bridges are classified as "structurally deficient" by PennDOT (the same designation the Minneapolis bridge received). This means that one or more of a bridge's major components has significant deterioration. In Philadelphia County, 104 out of 424 bridges are structurally deficient. Two-hundred and ten bridges in the county are listed as "functionally obsolete," meaning their lane widths or weight limits do not meet modern standards, with 70 bridges falling into both categories. All told, 58 percent of the county's bridges are insufficient in some way.
Philly's bridges and raised roadways were the subject of national news coverage back in March, when I-95 was closed for three days to repair a cracked support pillar. According to a report in the Inquirer, the bridge had been inspected in October, and had then been considered safe to stay open until planned repairs this summer. Only an impromptu inspection by an engineer on lunch break revealed the accelerated damage.
So how does PennDOT assess the state of Pennsylvania's bridges now? "They're steadily improving, but we've got a long way to go," says press secretary Rich Kirkpatrick. In July, Gov. Ed Rendell signed the Rebuild Pennsylvania Initiative, which authorizes $350 million in bond issues to allow PennDOT to begin accelerated repair work on 411 bridges statewide. Though nine of those bridges are in Philadelphia County, none of the I-95 viaducts are included. According to Kirkpatrick, they will be included in a separate project, though funding for their repair has yet to be identified.
Some funding is coming from Washington, D.C. Last Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved H.R. 3999, "The National Highway Bridge Reconstruction and Inspection Act of 2008," which sets aside $1 billion from the general fund for repair and replacement of state bridges. According to House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Press Secretary Jim Berard, these funds will be apportioned under a needs-based system. No formula has yet been established to determine which bridges are of the highest need, and it's unclear how much funding Pennsylvania will receive.
Still, these funds fall far short of what's necessary. On Monday, standing underneath the I-95 viaduct in Port Richmond, Rendell held a press conference with leaders from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. The group's new report, "Bridging the Gap: Restoring and Rebuilding the Nation's Bridges," estimates that it would take $140 billion (in 2006 dollars) to immediately repair all of the country's deficient bridges. According to Kirkpatrick, it would take $11 billion to repair the bridges in Pennsylvania alone.
Rendell is still seeking further sources of funding. His original proposal to commit $200 million per year for the next 10 years was rejected by the state legislature in favor of a one-year commitment of $350 million, according to Barry Ciccocioppo, spokesman for the Governor's Office. According to Ciccocioppo, Rendell believes the best source for funds at the state level is the leasing of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The current $12.8 billion bid by a consortium of Spanish and U.S. companies is being considered by the legislature.
The lingering question is how long the bridges will last. If funding cannot be found, they'll continue to deteriorate. More bridges will have to be closed or placed under weight restrictions, both of which can "wreak havoc on the economy," according to Kirkpatrick.
He says in the meantime, Pennsylvanians shouldn't live in fear. "The bridges that are open are safe," says Kirkpatrick. "PennDOT works very hard to assure that."