As if the conditions of our roads didn't concern us, now a trade group has reminded us of deficiencies in our bridge network, too.
A recent report from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association says 19.9% - let's go ahead and round it up to 20% and simplify it to 1 in 5 - are classified as structurally deficient. That includes big bridges over big rivers and small bridges on back roads. According to ARTBA, West Virginia is one of 14 states in which the number of structurally deficient bridges has increased in the past five years. Specifically, 522 bridges have been added to that list.
To be clear, a bridge that is listed as structurally deficient is not unsafe. As Brent Walker communications director for the West Virginia Department of Transportation said, "We would not put cars on a bridge that is not safe."
The Federal Highway Administration lists a bridge as structurally deficient if it receives low ratings for its deck, superstructure, substructure or culverts. The FHWA formerly listed some bridges as functionally obsolete based on their approach alignments, deck geometry and other factors. It stopped using that designation several years ago.
A suspicious person might think it self-serving for a trade group in the construction industry saying we need to do more to upgrade our bridges. While motives can be questioned, facts cannot be overlooked. Bridges are deteriorating faster than we are repairing or replacing them. Using ARTBA's figures, at the present rate of work the United States will need 80 years to bring every bridge in the nation up to standards.
Getting our bridge infrastructure up to where it should be requires asking many questions for which there are no easy answers. How many bridges really need expensive repairs or replacement? How much will that cost?
As noted above, the problem can range from replacing a culvert on a back road to easing congestion at major points where a bridge will have to be replaced sooner or later. One example of that is the Brent Spence Bridge, which carries Interstate 70 over the Ohio River at Cincinnati. That's a multibillion-dollar problem.
We all have wish lists. The Nick J. Rahall Bridge at Huntington, formerly and still informally known as the West 17th Street Bridge, is a two-lane bridge connecting two four-lane highways. Getting on the bridge can be a stressful experience. A second bridge or a new bridge would help.
There is a fix being considered to this national problem, but a lot of voters aren't going to like it. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AAA and the American Trucking Associations have asked Congress to consider increasing the federal fuel tax and dedicating it specifically to easing highway congestion and improving safety. The chamber suggests increasing the tax from its present 18.4 cents per gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon on diesel fuel by 25 cents per gallon over five years and indexing it to inflation.
The average motorist would pay $9 more per month under the proposal, according to the chamber.
Innovative solutions are being used to reduce the time and expense of building bridges. New construction processes allow bridges to be built offsite while piers are being put in the water. Cranes can lift the bridge into place once the piers are finished.
There are no easy answers, and people will have to decide what they want and how much they're willing to pay for. But as people in this area can tell you, you don't want to have to lose a bridge before you decide something has to be done.