State of our States' Bridges

By Liz Moucka | September 28, 2010

With the collapse of the Minneapolis I-35W Bridge last year, national and local attention has been focused of the deteriorating condition of bridges throughout the U.S. A recent report from the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO) has estimated the price of repairing and modernizing the nation's 590,000 bridges at $140 billion.

States have begun to take action, as far as money allows. Individually, states have issued reports:

Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD) Director Dan Flowers cited the first anniversary of the Minneapolis I-35W Bridge to underscore a point. "That tragedy serves as a grim reminder of the importance of adequately funding needed transportation improvements. Major transportation networks can be rendered useless if even the smallest link, such as a bridge, fails to perform as it should."

There are 12,531 total bridges in Arkansas. According to Flowers, 8 percent of the total bridges in the state are considered structurally deficient, and 15 percent of Arkansas' total bridges are classified functionally obsolete, which means a bridge doesn't meet current design standards for items such as shoulder width or vertical clearance.

"We estimate it would take approximately $1.6 billion over the next 10 years to address all our deficient bridge needs in Arkansas," Flowers said. "Unfortunately, we don't have the funds available to make all those needed improvements at this time."

As construction continues on two of Louisiana's signature bridges (Huey P. Long Bridge in New Orleans and the John James Audubon Bridge near St. Francisville), the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) reports that there are 13,157 bridges in Louisiana, with 13 percent classified as "structurally deficient." The term means a bridge either is in relatively poor condition or cannot carry a full load. If a bridge is unsafe, DOTD will close it.

Louisiana's bridge repair/replacement budget was approximately $85 million in 2006–07, increasing to approximately $125 million in 2007–08. Because of a 2007–08 state budget surplus, DOTD was able to spend an additional $35 million on state-owned bridges and additional $10 million on parish bridges. Their expenditure will return to about $125 million in 2008–09 unless additional recurring revenues are appropriated.

Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) Executive Director Larry L. "Butch" Brown recently reported that Mississippi has 1,274, or 8 percent of their bridges classified as functionally obsolete. About 2,830 — 17 percent — are classified as structurally deficient. Structurally deficient bridges are those structures that are not unsafe but need some type of repairs. Replacing all structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges would take approximately $1 billion, according to Brown.

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation and Oklahoma Legislature realized the state of their transportation infrastructure well before the 2007 bridge tragedy in Minneapolis. After their own tragic bridge collapse in 2002 of the I-40 bridge at Webber Falls, the state put an emphasis on improving their bridges and roadways.

In the past 30 months, ODOT has repaired or replaced 242 bridges at a cost of $682 million, according to a report issued by ODOT Director Gary Ridley. Approximately 500 more on-system bridges are scheduled to be replaced as part of the 2007–2014 Construction Work Plan, which is more than triple the amount of bridges addressed in the previous eight-year plans. Over the next decade, state funding for the agency is expected to increase by $2.7 billion, according to the ODOT report.

Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely said, "We have invested more than $1.7 billion in bridges in the last two decades and will continue that commitment into the future."

TDOT dedicated more than $130 million to the replacement and repair of Tennessee's bridges in FY 2007/2008 and will dedicate another $116.6 million for bridge repair and replacement in FY 2008/2009. TDOT is currently in the process of implementing additional training for bridge evaluators, an updated load permitting process to enhance the department's ability to issue permits, and is contracting with the U.S. Geological Survey to utilize sonar scan technologies to enhance underwater bridge inspections for some bridges.

Inflation has taken its toll on bridge construction costs over the years. According to the Arkansas report, in 1977, $25 million could build 136 bridges measuring 40 feet wide and 200 feet in length. Today, that same amount of money could only build 30 of the same type structures.

With fewer funds coming in from gas and diesel taxes, the difference must be made up from other sources. Toll roads and higher licensing permits, considered as user taxes, are becoming more prevalent, and legislators will have to become more creative in stretching our dollars. The entire AASHTO report, titled "Bridging the Gap: Restoring and Rebuilding the Nation's Bridges" can be read online at