Three years after the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis focused attention on bridge conditions nationwide, some observers see shortcomings in the federal bridge program. Some participants at a July 21 House subcommittee hearing found fault with the Federal Highway Administration’s system for tracking bridge funds as well as states’ ability to transfer federal bridge category funds to non-bridge projects. The panel also received ideas about ways to restructure the program. FHWA can take some steps on its own; other changes may be part of the next highway-transit bill, whenever it emerges.
There has been progress. Phillip Herr, the Government Accountability Office’s director for physical infrastructure issues, testified that the number of deficient bridges dipped 14% since 1998, to 159,739 last year. But House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) believes there are still too many deficient bridges. Joseph W. Comé, a U.S. Dept. of Transportation assistant inspector general, said the deck area of structurally deficient National Highway System bridges rose 8%, to 13.5 million sq meters, between 2001 and 2009. The 160,000-mile NHS includes Interstates and other arteries.
Comé also said FHWA’s accounting system is unable to link spending on bridges to improvements on those structures. King W. Gee, associate administrator for infrastructure, says FHWA is looking at a system “fix,” so that when a project is authorized, its bridge funds would be “tagged” to the authorization. He adds, “The challenge … is that, in many cases, a single project has multiple funding streams and also [multiple] parts to it.” FHWA anticipates being able to put the change in place in fiscal 2011.
Oberstar isn’t pleased that states have shifted some bridge-category funds to other highway projects, although the practice is legal. He says states transfer the bridge money, “and then they turn around and complain that they don’t have enough money for bridge replacement.”
Virginia DOT chief engineer Malcolm T. Kerley said reports about bridge funds being diverted are “misleading.” According to Kerley, FHWA said in 2004 that U.S. bridge spending at all government levels was $10.5 billion, more than double federal bridge funds that year. “Transfers between federal programs are simply a project management tool,” he added.
Kerley called for refocusing the bridge program to use asset management so that states can repair deficient bridges and fund work on other spans to keep those structures from becoming deficient.
The American Road & Transportation Builders Association suggests a bridge “risk index” be used to divide funds among states, plus a “bonus pool” for DOT to reward states that reduce the bridges ranking below the risk-index level.