Because it was in such bad shape, the Hickory Street Bridge in Warren, Pa., was closed last March. A new $10 million span eventually will replace the 86-year-old concrete arch structure. In the meantime, a local hospital has placed an ambulance crew on the other side of town rather than waste life-saving minutes on a three-mile detour around the closed bridge.

Last November, a century-old bridge over the Chickasawhay River in Waynesboro, Miss., collapsed. Nearby, the replacement bridge was being built — too late for three people who died when the old bridge fell apart.

Never mind London Bridge. Too many of America's 300,000-plus local bridges are the ones in trouble. They may be too narrow for today's thicker traffic or too light for today's heavier trucks. They may be shedding concrete, showing cracks or sitting on shaky piers weakened by storm-induced soil erosion.

Whatever the reasons, local governments — which own 51 percent of U.S. bridges — never have enough money to fix or replace them, and they are always playing catch-up to whittle down the huge backlog of bridges needing repairs.

Better, but still not good

Despite the current state of local bridges, generally, the status of bridges is improving. Of the more than 590,000 bridges on the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) National Bridge Inventory, 163,000 are either obsolete or deteriorating, compared to about 200,000 a decade ago. Then, 35 percent of all the inventoried bridges in the U.S. were classified as deficient; now that total is 28 percent.

However, the nation's bridges are aging. Half were built before 1965, and another quarter have passed the half-century mark. “The average age is 42 years,” points out Ray McCormick, who heads up the National Bridge Inspection Program for the FHWA. “Some of the bridges in that aging population are reaching the limit of their service lives.”

Regular preventative maintenance can make the ancient arches last longer. But the current six-year Federal Bridge Program, which expires on Sept. 30, does not allow money to be spent that way. That leaves bridge maintenance up to cities and counties. “Several years ago, I began putting extra money from [the county's] budget into maintenance,” says Pike County, Pa., Commissioner Harry Forbes. “But you are defeating your own purpose if you break the backs of your property owners to raise enough money to maintain every one of these bridges at the level that they should be maintained.”

Even if the next surface transportation bill permits local governments to spend federal bridge funding on regular maintenance, the money will have to come out of other areas. “If we pull money out for maintenance, we will have less money to fix deficient bridges,” says Mary Lou Ralls, the state bridge engineer in the Texas Department of Transportation. “What we need is a new funding source, because the current pot is too small.”

Since the first federal bridge-funding program was enacted as part of the Federal-aid Highway Act of 1971, Washington has poured more than $55 billion into bridge improvements. The annual investment from all levels of government in bridge preservation (i.e., bridge rehabilitation, minor bridge repairs and replacement) is $7.6 billion, of which $3.6 billion comes from the federal government. Another $1.2 billion goes toward new bridges.

Repair cost is mounting

It will cost $54.7 billion from all sources to eliminate the current bridge repair workload, according to FHWA's National Bridge Investment Analysis System (NBIAS). But, NBIAS figures show it will take $9.4 billion a year over the 2001-2020 period to erase the repair backlog and take care of anticipated bridge problems, and $7.3 billion a year just to keep the bridge repair workload at present levels. Making that financial commitment is a tough call in a down economy, when cities and counties have to postpone fixing bridges that are showing signs of deterioration to address those that need immediate attention.

“We're at such a small level of funding right now that we have to concentrate on bridges where there's a critical need for replacement,” says Ron Young, engineer-manager of the Alcona County, Mich., Roads Commission. “At the same time, we ought to make it easier to preserve and rehabilitate the bridges we have to make them last longer.”

People are not holding their breath waiting for the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) reauthorization to pass, either. With Congress undecided on what to do and the states having to weigh in on their wish lists, TEA-21 likely will expire without a new law to take its place. The fate of any proposed hike in the main funding mechanism — the gasoline tax — could be unresolved for some time.

“We're too early to even speculate on the gas tax,” says Forbes, who predicts Congress simply will extend the present authorization at current funding levels for a year or so. “That's what our Senators are telling us. I think the gas tax change will come into play as the states lobby for what they're looking for and the funding stream will then be put in place. But it'll take a year to a year-and-a-half to figure out where everybody's going.”

Increasing the minimum

The Highway Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement Program — known as the federal bridge program — requires either an 80-20-percent or 90-10-percent federal/state match for bridge funds. The problem for local governments, however, is the current minimum 15 percent of the federal portion that states must set aside for off-system bridges. Off-system bridges are at least 20 feet long located on minor local or rural collector roads, hence, not part of the federal-aid highway network. Noting that more than one-third of the 283,000 off-system bridges are deficient, the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Counties (NACo) and its affiliate the National Association of County Engineers (NACE) are pushing for a 25 percent set-aside minimum.

The Bush Administration wants states to have more flexibility to allocate federal funds to off-system bridges as they see fit: in theory, they could even exceed the existing 35 percent cap on such spending. In practice, though, the cap is not an issue; as most states face budget-shortfall dilemmas, more of the federal money often goes to higher-priority, on-system bridges, and states are tempted to make the minimum percentage the maximum disbursement.

“Most states are ‘good guys’ in that they work cooperatively with local governments to at least devise equitable ways of taking their monies to apply to both on- and off-system bridges,” says Tony Giancola, executive director of the NACE. “But some states use that 15 percent as a ceiling.”

States sometimes divert road monies to what they consider more pressing needs, Giancola adds. Some 30 percent of federal bridge program funds have gone to other services, according to Linda Bailey, a policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Surface Transportation Policy Project. “We really have to have that set-aside number to keep the states honest,” Giancola says.

Bailey agrees, calling for a spending accountability provision in the new legislation. “Raising the minimum to 25 percent would have a big impact. It sends a message that [states] really need to pay attention to [locally owned] bridges.”

Some bridges are in such urgent need of repair or replacement that localities will use only their own funds to do the job. “They'll say ‘we want this done so badly that we'll do it without a match,’” says Jennifer Gavin, spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

Young is a member of the Critical Bridge Advisory in Michigan, which rates applications from local agencies seeking federal funds to replace bridges. Those funds “are allocated to states based on relative proportion of deficient deck area (the bridge surface you drive across),” he explains. “In Michigan, local agency bridges account for 25 percent of the federal funds allocated, so we think 25 percent of the money should go towards those bridges.”

In recent years, however, Michigan was one of the states where the off-system pass-through has been limited to 15 percent. “We felt we were getting shortchanged,” Young says.

Keeping the minimum that low “grossly affects a county's ability to repair bridges,” Forbes says. “It takes forever to get a project okayed unless it's in dire straits.”

Bill Hansell — an Umatilla County, Ore., Commissioner and first vice president of NACo — thinks more bridges ought to be in the on-system rather than the off-system column. “We could do a better job of prioritizing our repair and replacement schedule,” he contends. “We could shift appropriated funds for some bridges over to others that are in worse shape.”

Working with the states

Although some cities and counties think their states are holding the purse strings too tightly, others are working with state government to loosen up the strings. Young says that Michigan has devoted a penny of its last gasoline tax hike of 4 cents just to state-owned bridges. Then Michigan changed governors last fall. “The current administration seems favorable to sharing that one cent with local agencies,” he says.

Missouri has an independent highway commission that has dedicated funding through a state gas tax. “The legislature has no control over it,” says Karen Miller, NACo president and Boone County, Mo., commissioner. Ohio — which administers and maintains its local bridge program through a system of elected county engineers — just enacted a 6 cent-per-gallon gas tax hike, coming on line in three equal annual installments. That, and a recent 2.7-cent gas tax shift from the State Highway Patrol, will give local governments an extra $370 million to spend. How much goes for bridge work remains to be seen.

Glenn Sprowls, executive director of the County Engineers Association of Ohio, praises the state's generosity in going “well above the minimum 15 percent” off-system set-aside, too. Plus, there is a Permissive License Tax, separate from the state license plate levy, which lets counties collect up to $20 more on license plates. “That has worked really well for bridges in urban areas,” he says.

In Iowa, localities can apply for State Bridge Fund monies to fix severely deteriorated or relatively expensive structures. Two or three bridges per year get repaired that way, says Steve DeVries, executive director of the Iowa County Engineers Association Service Bureau in Des Moines.

Texas, with about a quarter of its 50,000 bridges deemed deficient or obsolete, has created a package of innovative and far-reaching partnerships with its local governments. The signature program in the package is the pioneering Participation Waived/Equivalent Match Option (PW/EM).

Texas allocates its federal bridge funds on an 80-10-10 split, but since the projects are designed to federal standards “the cost is higher than many cities and counties can afford,” Ralls says. Under the PW/EM Option, the state waives the 10 percent local obligation if the local governments do a comparable amount of their own projects, using their own manpower and equipment. And, they can design to their own standards. “Effectively, we're paying the 20 percent instead of the 10,” she adds.

That scheme allows Texas' cities and counties to stretch their dollars to get more done. In 2001, the Option program's first year, there were 217 Participation Waived (PW) bridges and 338 comparable Equivalent Match (EM) projects. The next year, there were 282 PW projects and 418 EM bridge projects.

Local governments have three years to complete the EM projects. “We're just at the point where we expect some fruition from this,” Ralls says.

Because local governments typically use a “worst-first” priority scale to work on the bridges with the biggest problems, usually there is little or nothing left for those bridges that are classified as functionally obsolete — too narrow, too low, too little load-carrying capacity or improperly aligned with the connecting road. AASHTO reports that structurally deficient, or “outright dangerous” bridges, in Gavin's words — those that are closed, weight-limited or need immediate work to stay open because of superstructure or other faults — were reduced from 120,000 to 83,000 between 1992 and 2002. The number of functionally obsolete bridges stayed the same, at 80,000. Yet, in terms of total deficient deck area, almost 18 percent of all bridges are functionally obsolete, vs. 10 percent that are structurally deficient.

“Many functionally obsolete bridges cannot be brought up to newer standards because of width or height limitations or other constraints,” Giancola says. “Until they become structurally deficient, remedial action would not normally be accomplished.”

That is the case “quite often” adds Devries, though not always. “Obviously, the ones that are load-posted are failing and have to be done first. The more important the road, though, the more likely it is taken care of before it gets to that state,” he says. And when it gets in that state, there may be no time to wait. DeVries mentions one bridge that was slated for work in 2008. “A month later, it fell in, so that had to be pushed up.”

Engineering involved in bridge work also can make bridges lower priority jobs. A blacktop extension may be easier to tackle. “Replacing a bridge tends to be a more complex engineering task than most road projects,” Bailey says.

When county road crews cannot handle the job, the bill goes up. “That's when we go out for design and bid out the construction, too,” Hansell says. “Every increment like this adds to the cost and removes money from the pool that might go to another bridge.”

An untold number of bridges are shorter than 20 feet, so for federal-aid purposes, they don't even exist. Because there is an immense volume of them, FHWA does not collect data on, inspect or classify them, and, for now, the agency is going to stick to that minimum eligibility standard. But those spans need work no less than larger ones — and frequently, more so.

Ohio inventories all bridges down to 10-foot spans and inspects them annually (versus every two years for the majority of bridges in the federal data network). “However long they are, if they collapse, you've got a problem,” says Sprowls, who admits it would be a major undertaking for those states that do not already have that data to begin amassing it on bridges under 20 feet.

Typically, those bridges that do not qualify for federal aid tend to be in worse shape than the eligible bridges. And most often, they are in rural areas, which account for more than three-quarters of all bridges.

Giancola believes that federal data collection may need to be expanded somewhat to bring more bridges into the system and provide a better gauge on the scope of the bridge problem at the local level. “If we can't get our arms around the elephant, we can't tell how big the elephant is,” he says.

Ray Pelosi is an Atlanta-based writer.