WASHINGTON — A dozen blocks from the dome of the U.S. Capitol, a bridge rots away in silence as 70,000 drivers roar across it each day.
Now and then a chunk of concrete shakes loose from its underside and plops into the river below, but mostly it is quiet corrosion that has eaten holes through the thick steel beams that were laid in place six decades ago. Most are the size of a quarter or no bigger than a paper dollar, but one girder looks like something that has been gnawed on by rats, so riddled with gapping holes that no wise man would dare stand on it.
There is no danger that the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge will collapse into the Anacostia River, District of Columbia engineers say, but it is falling apart faster than repairs can be made.
It needs to be replaced now, at a cost of almost $661 million in a project with an overall price tag of $906 million. While it holds distinction as the bridge-gone-bad that is closest to the halls of Congress, lawmakers know they all have bridges that are as bad or worse in their home states.
America’s bridges are falling down piece by piece, rust sprinkling like a summer shower from corrosion too intense to be spackled over by a fresh coat of paint. Concrete breaking away in chips and chunks.
No one is at risk. Not yet. And officials say they will shut down any bridge well before it becomes a danger.
“If any bridge is unsafe, we immediately take it out of service,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “However, it’s no secret that many aging bridges across the country are in need of repair or replacement, and there simply isn’t enough money in Washington to fund them all.”
Bridges have a life span, a limit to how long they can bear the weight and weather of daily stress. Then they need to be replaced. Generally they are built to stand for 50 years; the average bridge in the U.S. is 43 years old.
That puts many of the nation’s 600,000 bridges at the end of their lives, with 70,000 of them officially judged structurally deficient last year. Pennsylvania leads the nation, with 5,906 troubled bridges.
Bridges are just a fraction of the vast infrastructure boom that followed World War II and limped creaking and groaning into the 21st century.
Water systems need a $335 billion fix, and sewers $300 billion more, according to an exhaustive series of reports by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The electrical grid requires investment of $107 billion by 2020. Airports need $114 billion over the same period. About $30 billion should be pumped into U.S. ports in the next eight years if they are to compete in global markets. Close to $40 billion must be being spent on a revolutionary new aviation control system.
“Reliable, modern infrastructure isn’t a luxury,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the Obama administration’s nominee as secretary of state, who serves on two key Senate committees that deal with infrastructure issues. “It’s the lifeblood of our economy, the key to connecting our markets, moving products and people, generating and sustaining millions of jobs for American workers, to not wasting hundreds of thousands of hours and millions of gallons of gas on clogged highways.”
Perhaps the best bottom line estimates came from an expert panel convened two years ago by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. To maintain infrastructure at current levels, $134 billion to $194 billion more money needs to be spend each year through 2035. The federal government alone should come up with $2.3 trillion over that period.
The cost to keep bridges from simply getting worse is projected at a staggering $13 billion a year for the next 50 years, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, known as AASHTO. That number stands starkly against overall federal spending for roads, bridges and transit systems, currently about $54 billion a year. In past years, Washington has provided about half of the money that states used to repair and replace bridges.
But there is a bigger number: $140 billion, what AASHTO says it would cost to repair every deficient or obsolete bridge in the nation.
Structural deficiency doesn’t mean a bridge is on the verge of collapse, but it is like a car that has gone 500,000 miles — the need for repair is constant and evermore expensive.
When a bridge structure weakens, weight restrictions can put it off limits to truck traffic, emergency vehicles and even school buses. Re-routing traffic causes delays and congestion, burns more gasoline and ultimately bumps up the cost of everything that arrives in the market or mall over the roadways.
As America’s insatiable desire for stuff has grown, truck travel nearly doubled over 20 years and is projected to double again by 2035. Obsolete bridges have become choke points, delaying trucks’ passage.
The cost of those delays are well known to trucking companies, but collectively they amount to another multibillion dollar figure that seems almost abstract to average consumers.
Unless, of course, they ponder why gas costs more at a downtown filling station than it does elsewhere or why doorstep package delivery costs more in congested areas than others. Many trucking companies price their shipments into congested areas by zip codes, because time is money and their trucks get stuck in traffic, too.
The span in the deadliest bridge collapse in modern U.S. history was neither terribly old nor exceptionally decrepit, but more than five years later it haunts every state and federal official responsible for maintaining a bridge anywhere.
Thirteen people died and 145 were injured in 2007 when an eight-lane interstate highway bridge carrying Minneapolis evening rush-hour traffic collapsed into the Mississippi River.
The bridge repeatedly had been labeled structurally deficient by inspectors who cited significant corrosion and cracking on cross girders. But investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board determined the bridge had been flawed from its very beginnings in the 1960s. Gusset plates used to join its steel beams weren’t muscular enough to bear the weight. That shortcoming had been exacerbated later when two inches of concrete added to the road surface increased the bridge weight by 20 percent.
Though inspectors weren’t blamed for the Minneapolis collapse, public fears were inflamed, and ensuring that the disaster never will be repeated has taken on the tone of a safety crusade.
A Pittsburgh bridge over the Monongahela River was closed for emergency repairs for three weeks in 2008. A month later, Interstate 95 through Philadelphia was closed for two days after a crack was discovered. Last year, the governors of Indiana and Kentucky agreed to shut down a six-lane bridge over the Ohio River.
When workers on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge said they thought they felt a shiver in one span on a windy night last August, Maryland officials shut it down immediately until inspectors arrived.
“We erred on the side of being very, very cautious today,” said Harold Bartlett, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority.
When Nicholson is asked to name the biggest challenge to the bridge replacement project, there’s not a sliver of hesitation.
“Funding,” he says, chuckling.
Any highway engineer in America would have the same response. Money is scarce and the cost of bridge building has soared in the 21st century. When the price of oil jumped, so did the cost of asphalt. Steel and concrete has gotten more expensive, as has the cost of running heavy machinery fueled by diesel.
Putting together a funding package for any public project is like juggling bowling balls on a tight rope.
There is some federal money, but the era of austerity has curtailed that flow. A federal loan guarantee program known as TIFIA, for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, has helped states get loan money and to leverage financial support from the private sector.
Nicholson hopes to raise $300 to $400 million of the construction cash through Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles, known as GARVEEs, a kind of bond in which up-front money is secured in anticipation of federal aid grants.
“I’m impartial from where federal funding comes, but we will be seeking additional federal funding,” he says.
LaHood sees the growing need for local funding sources as federal money slows to a trickle of what it once was.
“By working together to combine tolls or other dedicated sources of local funding with grant and loan assistance from the state and federal government, communities are finding creative ways to move forward with critical new bridge projects across the country,” he says.