TOPICS > Politics

Aging Bridges Among Country’s Infrastructure Woes

October 20, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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As the economic crisis continues, a similar crisis looms in the country's aging infrastructure. In the first of a series of reports, Ray Suarez takes a look at Pennsylvania's bridge problem and how it may impact future economic recovery efforts.

RAY SUAREZ: It was just a little over a year ago that a bridge carrying Interstate 35 over the Mississippi in Minneapolis, Minnesota, came crashing down during the evening rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring over 140 others.

The bridge recently reopened, but the disaster in Minnesota woke the nation up to a disturbing fact: Structurally deficient bridges and overpasses exist in every state.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, more than 72,000 bridges across the country are in some sort of trouble.

This summer, I went to Pennsylvania, which holds the dubious distinction of having more structurally deficient bridges than any other state.

This is a raised section of Interstate 95 right outside Philadelphia. On average, 180,000 trucks and cars pass over this eight-mile stretch each day. And it’s a safe bet most of those drivers have no idea what’s going on right beneath their wheels.

On this day, an inspector is monitoring a key part of the structure. He’s face to face with areas of cracked concrete, rusting steel, and holes in girders you could put your fist through.

Engineer Charles Davies from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, PennDOT, reviews most major bridge repairs in the area.

CHARLES DAVIES, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation: And you see the drainage system that is almost completely non-functional now. When you’re here during a thunderstorm, it can really be a dramatic, almost like Niagara Falls coming off these piers.

RAY SUAREZ: Last march, a state inspector — passing by here after a lunch break — noticed potentially disastrous cracks in a previously examined column. No one could say exactly when the pillar and the portion of I-95 it was supporting would have collapsed, but there was talk of weeks, not years.

CHARLES DAVIES: The system would not have been functional without this column, and it could have lead to a catastrophic failure.

RAY SUAREZ: Emergency repairs on the damaged column shut this busy section of highway down for two-and-a-half days and created a traffic nightmare on this major East Coast artery. The close call is what has inspectors busy seven months later.

CHARLES DAVIES: It told us how difficult it sometimes is to predict the behavior of components that are seriously deteriorating. It was a location that we had identified for repairs. We thought we had more time than ultimately it turned out to be.

So these are difficult to predict, particularly when they reach the end of their service life and when conditions get severely deteriorated.

States strain under repair costs

Gov. Ed Rendell
[T]he American infrastructure, our transportation system was the envy of the world for decades and decades. Now it's laughable.

RAY SUAREZ: It's a challenge faced in most states, as officials try to puzzle out which aging bridges need attention first.

PennDOT has plans to rebuild this raised portion of I-95, but replacing just this eight-mile section will cost an estimated $2 billion. The price tag for repairing all of Pennsylvania's bridges is an estimated $14 billion, and nobody can say for sure where that money would come from, including the state's governor, Ed Rendell.

Rendell is prominent among the state officials pressing the federal government for help.

GOV. ED RENDELL (D), Pennsylvania: States and local governments in this country pay 75 percent of the cost of maintaining our infrastructure. That's unlike almost any other developed nation, where the federal government pays the lion's share of the cost.

Unless the federal government is willing to step up and develop a real infrastructure repair program, we're never going to be able to do the two things we need to do: one, maintain what we have; and, two, build new things.

RAY SUAREZ: Governor Ed Rendell took to the road last summer, crossing his state in an effort to highlight, among other things, the region's crumbling transportation system and what he's trying to do about it.

Rising repair bills coincide with severe strains on the nation's Highway Trust Fund. Congress recently injected $8 billion into that fund, but most state officials -- Rendell among them -- see that as a short-term fix, not a long-term solution.

GOV. ED RENDELL: We lead the nation in bridges 75 years or older.

RAY SUAREZ: Rendell co-chairs a nonpartisan coalition of elected officials called Building America's Future. Along with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he's leading an effort to make the funding of infrastructure a top national priority.

Rendell and his coalition allies argue that incidents like the Minneapolis bridge disaster are symptomatic of a system that's been allowed to deteriorate for too long.

In the first half of the last century, Americans went on an infrastructure-building spree, and we've made good use of the things that were built, but we've been reluctant to pay to replace and repair thousands of miles of bridges, tunnels, roads, instead choosing to cross our fingers and rely on the good work of our parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents.

But by that delay, we're just making sure that the eventual bill is even bigger.

GOV. ED RENDELL: Do we want to be a third-rate nation? Or do we still want to be, you know, the greatest country in the world when it comes to our economy and moving around?

I mean, the American infrastructure, our transportation system was the envy of the world for decades and decades. Now it's laughable.

Roads can't wait for funding

Timothy Carson
Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission
We're going to have to move toward these direct-user charges and specifically toward tolling the federal interstate system.

RAY SUAREZ: What was laughable when we spoke to the governor during the summer, before the global financial meltdown, may have become the new normal, an America of burdened and deficit-prone local budgets and a federal government hemmed in by the need to borrow new trillions to save the markets and the banks.

Fixing roads, bridges, and rails may have to take a number and get in a long line of priorities in search of funding.

But that's what makes this challenge so daunting: People who've been struggling to patch holes in the system say the need to spend can't wait for the ability to spend to catch up.

Tim Carson is a member of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

TIMOTHY CARSON, Vice Chair, Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission: The interstate system is looking at the end of its useful life with literally trillions of dollars required to reconstruct that system.

RAY SUAREZ: Carson opposed and Governor Rendell supported an offer from a European consortium to collect the tolls and take over maintenance and management of the turnpike in return for $13 billion for the state. The offer's been withdrawn, and the feds have turned down Pennsylvania's request to collect tolls on Interstate 80.

Don't like the tolls you already pay? You won't like the future Carson sees of a country where drivers face many more fees.

TIMOTHY CARSON: We're going to have to move toward these direct-user charges and specifically toward tolling the federal interstate system.

RAY SUAREZ: Here on the front lines of the battle, engineers will continue their triage beneath Pennsylvania's bridges, constantly worrying they might get it wrong.

CHARLES DAVIES: Like the problem that we had in March, we may make a judgment about how much time we have to repair that doesn't turn out to be accurate. That is something that we'll have to face with more frequency if the resources are not there.

RAY SUAREZ: It amounts to a game of Russian Roulette being played out not just here in Pennsylvania, but across the nation.