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Friday, June 28, 2013

Highway Bridge Conditions: Issues for Congress

Robert S. Kirk
Specialist in Transportation Policy

William J. Mallett
Specialist in Transportation Policy

The sudden catastrophic failure of the I-5 Interstate System bridge in Washington State on May 23, 2013, has raised policy concerns in Congress regarding the condition of the nation’s transportation infrastructure in general, and in particular the federal role in funding, building, maintaining, and ensuring the safety of roads and especially bridges in the United States.

Of the 607,000 public road bridges, about 67,000 (11%) were classified as structurally deficient in 2012, and another 85,000 (14%) were classified as functionally obsolete. This is less than half the number classified as structurally deficient in 1990 and 16% less than were classified as functionally obsolete. Structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges are not necessarily unsafe. Nonetheless, public concern about bridge safety in the wake of the I-5 bridge collapse raises the policy question of how quickly these bridges should be replaced or improved. At current annual spending levels, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates that the bridge investment backlog (in dollar terms) would be reduced by 11% by 2028. Reducing the backlog to near zero during the same period is estimated to require an annual spending rate roughly 60% higher than recent levels.

The most recent highway bill, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21
st Century Act (MAP-21; P.L. 112-141), eliminated the former Highway Bridge Program, which distributed federal money specifically for bridge improvements. States may use funds received under two major FHWA programs, the National Highway Performance Program and the Surface Transportation Program, for bridge repairs or construction, but the decision about how much of its funding to devote to bridges rather than roadway needs is up to each state. FHWA enforces certain planning requirements and performance standards established in MAP-21, but it does not make the determination as to which bridges should benefit from federal funding.

Congressional issues regarding the nation’s highway bridge infrastructure include the following:

  • Given the steady decline in the number of structurally deficient bridges during recent decades, should Congress take action to accelerate the improvement of the remaining deficient bridges? 
  • If Congress wishes to accelerate the reduction in the number of deficient bridges under MAP-21, what can it do to encourage the states to spend more of their federal funds on their deficient bridges? 
  • Given the context of large projected shortfalls in highway trust fund revenues relative to spending, should Congress encourage increased spending on highway bridges through increased use of tolling and public private partnerships (PPPs)? 
  • Should Congress consider legislation to redirect spending away from off-system bridges to more heavily used bridges on the designated federal-aid highways? 
  • Congressional oversight of bridge conditions could be complicated by the absence of a freestanding program. How quickly can FHWA develop the MAP- 21 performance measures to report to Congress on progress on bridge conditions?

Date of Report: June 10, 2013
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: R43103
Price: $29.95

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