Despite the presence of over half a million bridges in the United States, various high-profile structural incidents over the last decade have allowed for the perception that America "is experiencing a crisis with respect to deficient bridges," writes the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Without taking away from the tragedy experienced by specific communities, a 2018 report by the CRS states that "federal data do not substantiate this assertion." While politicians may debate what constitutes a crisis, bridges in need of serious repair exist across the country.
WHAT IS AN ENDANGERED BRIDGE?
Endangered is not an official U.S. government term. The Federal Highway Administration rates bridges on a scale of zero to nine and labels them as good, fair, or poor. If you’re reading government reports from before 2018, you may also see the phrase structurally deficient instead of poor.
Each component of a bridge is separately evaluated. If any of the parts is rated four or below, the bridge is listed in poor condition.
ARE POOR BRIDGES SAFE?
If you learn a bridge along your daily commute is rated as poor, you shouldn't be too alarmed. The CRS explains that "a bridge classified as structurally deficient is not necessarily unsafe, but may require the posting of a vehicle weight restriction. When officials determine that a bridge is unsafe, they close it to traffic." Plus, federal law requires bridge inspections every 24 months to keep drivers safe.
WHAT POOR BRIDGES ARE NEAR ME?
In 2020 West Virginia had the highest percentage of poor bridges within its state at 21%. Finishing out the top five were Guam, Iowa, Rhode Island, and South Dakota in fifth place.
The raw data that makes up the annual bridge survey is provided to the public by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). As a result, you can check these public records to learn about the conditions of bridges near you.
WHAT ARE THE MOST ENDANGERED BRIDGES IN THE COUNTRY?
A review of the 2019 USDOT data by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association identified California as home to eight of America's top ten busiest but poorest bridges. These bridges are still in use, with over 230,000 daily vehicle crossings each.
The 2019 number one offender was U.S. Route 101 over Kester Avenue in Los Angeles. However, it only earned its poor rating because of the bridge deck. Both the super- and substructure were rated good.
WHAT IS BEING DONE TO REPAIR ENDANGERED BRIDGES?
Bridges are constantly being monitored and repaired, so they remain safe. The data proves that governments are working to improve their bridges. Rhode Island had the highest number of poor bridges by percentage in 2019, with 174 rated poor. By 2020 repairs left only 148 rated as poor.
Federal law doesn't require states to eliminate all poor bridges. The CSR explains this is to prevent spending on relatively low-priority projects that do not present major safety problems. States must only focus on repairing the National Highway System if certain conditions are met. For example, if 10% of bridge roadways are rated poor for three years in a row, states may be required to give priority funding to repairs.
One example of this rating and repair process can be found in Washington, D.C., with Arlington Memorial Bridge. The bridge was rated poor since 2009 and even saw traffic weight restrictions imposed. After 2 years of construction, in December 2020, the National Park Service reopened Arlington Memorial Bridge with new foundations, supports, and a new bridge deck. Some may have called the deterioration of this American landmark an embarrassment. But others point to the success of the bridge rating program for keeping drivers safe and funneling limited repair money to where it is most needed.