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We Need a Solution to Our Deteriorating Roads and Bridges

We Need a Solution to Our Deteriorating Roads and Bridges

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By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Military University

America’s deteriorating bridges and highways are an alarming fact of life. According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), “There are 178 million daily crossings on over 47,000 structurally deficient U.S. bridges.

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At the current rate of upgrading our bridges, it would take 80 years to repair them all.  Major structural damage requires special maintenance, the ARTBA says.

The science and engineering of bridge building were firmly established hundreds of years ago. The technology and materials used for bridge-building have greatly improved. That has not stopped accidents from happening.

Current Examples of Bridges and Roads in Disrepair

This past April, a concrete bridge railing in Chattanooga, Tennessee, fell onto a vehicle after an oversized truck load struck the bridge. In May, flood waters caused a bridge on U.S. 281 in Spencer, Nebraska, to collapse. In March 2018, a bridge across a highway leading to Florida International University collapsed, killing six people.

Over the last 30 years, there have been other major bridge collapses. A portion of the Oakland, California, Cypress Freeway Bridge collapsed in 1989 when the upper deck fell onto the lower roadway. The Hyatt Regency walkway in Kansas City, Missouri, collapsed in 1981, killing 114 people. A train trestle in Mobile, Alabama, collapsed in 1993, sending an Amtrak train into the water.

According to Iowa Watch.org, the worst in the state is a simple two-lane bridge with rusted bolts and crooked beams over Wapsinonoc Creek in Muscatine County. It carries over 4,000 vehicles daily and has not been repaired since 1956.

Across the country, one out of every 11 bridges in the United States is structurally deficient, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. For example:

  • New York State has 17,462 bridges and 1,928 are in various condition of disrepair.
  • Mississippi has 17,068 bridges with 2,098 in need of repair.
  • West Virginia has 7,217 bridges and 1,247 are in various conditions of disrepair.

The numbers are significant because they affect the flow of commerce, the nation’s economy and employment in the transportation industry.

A CNBC ranking gave letter grades to the 10 states with the worst bridges and roads infrastructure and where repairs are needed most:

  • Mississippi (D+)12% for bridges, and 51% for roads
  • Massachusetts (D+) 9% bridges, 42% roads
  • New Jersey (D+) 9% bridges, 66% roads
  • New York (D) 10% bridges, 60% roads
  • Maryland (D) 5% bridges, 55% roads
  • West Virginia (D) 19% bridges, 47% roads
  • Connecticut (D) 8% bridges, 73% roads
  • Maine (D-) 13% bridges, 53% roads
  • New Hampshire (F) 11% bridges, 54% roads
  • Rhode Island (F) 23% bridges, 70% roads

That state average for deficient bridges was 12% and 57% for roads in poor condition.

The percentages may not seem large enough to be of concern, but consider how many bridges you cross and potholes you dodge each day. Poor roads, bridges and decaying infrastructure have an economic impact. It is estimated that the average American family loses $3,400 yearly because of such hazardous road conditions.

The White House Pledges $1 Trillion

President Trump in 2016 promised $1 trillion to fix the country’s aging bridges and roadways. This pledge grew to $2 trillion in 2019 when Trump and Congress agreed to work together on the plan.

The more pressing question is where would this money come from? The White House seems to be offering to fund only about $200 billion of the $2 trillion or 10%. What finally gets approved when the federal budget wins approval from Congress before September 30 is anybody’s guess. The amount might still be that small 10 percent of what is needed – or less.

Yet the work must be done. Many bridges and road infrastructure projects simply cannot be postponed.

States Fund Bridge and Road Work by Raising Fuel Tax and Tolls

The states cannot wait. They will have to find the money somehow. One way to finance the repairs is on the backs of the trucking industry and America’s motorists through gas and diesel tax hikes. Many states have already raised truckers’ fuel taxes.

Among the states that have raised their gasoline tax are Oklahoma (3 cents a gallon), South Carolina (2 cents), Indiana (1.8 cents), Maryland (1.5 cents), Tennessee (1 cent), Vermont (0.42 cents) and Iowa (0.2 cents).

Tolls for bridges, roads, tunnels and ferries are also being raised for infrastructure projects. Some states are building new toll roads, too.

What Do Others Say?

The Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) reports that “The current sales tax rate collected on diesel is 20.3 cents and the gas rate is 16.2 cents” along the 325 miles of the I-81 corridor. But, on July 1, the fuel tax will increase 2.1%, which means “an additional 7.7 cents per gallon collected on diesel purchases and an additional 7.6 cents collected on gas purchases.”

OOIDA reports that this fuel tax should generate about $55 million a year and a new tax on large trucks should raise another $24 million. Some states are charging for electrical charging stops, such as Idaho, North Carolina, Washington, Missouri, Nebraska, Virginia and Colorado.

AAA supports the increased fuel taxes to pay for bridge and road repairs. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports a federal fuel tax increase.

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What Is the Solution?

The problem is not about stopping the rise in fuel taxes. The problem is about finding the source of these funds, not the maintenance and new construction of bridges and roadways. It appears that our taxes will increase the cost of driving our children to school, going on vacation and purchasing anything online that is delivered by truck. Our disposal income is going to pay for the road and bridge repairs, and not the federal government or the state government.

No final decision has been reached. There is still time during this election cycle to urge our local politicians to find the money from budget items for other projects that can be eliminated or postponed for a decade or two.

The voters are already starting to listen at the grassroots level. One example comes from Petersburg, Virginia, where Joe Morrissey soundly defeated longtime State Senator Rosalyn Dance in a recent primary that stunned onlookers.

Morrissey vowed to fix the potholes in Petersburg and the surrounding community of Richmond and Chesterfield, Prince George and Dinwiddie counties. He became known as “Pothole Joe.” He told Real Radio 804.com that his stunning victory was the result of “how he connects with people by taking notes from each conversation and following up with a personalized letter.”

So, what is a thoughtful solution – or at least the start of one? It is you emailing, texting or writing a snail-mail letter to your member of Congress and to the White House. But don’t stop there. Write to the Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Tell her to fight for all of us by getting more federal dollars to help the states repair and build our nation’s crumbling bridges and roads. And don’t forget to contact your state’s Secretary of Transportation as well.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.