6/19/2013: One in eight California bridges “structurally deficient”

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Shannon Tracey
510-338-2937
shannon@TransFormCA.org

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, June 19, 2013

One in eight California bridges “structurally deficient”

Greater focus needed to maintain safety and limit emergency repair costs of state’s nearly 3,000 deficient bridges

San Francisco, CA – While the Bay Bridge reconstruction takes center stage in the Bay Area, another bridge disaster could be waiting in the wings.  A new report released today shows that California ranks 20th nationally in terms of the overall condition of the state’s bridges, with one being the worst, 51 being the best. The Fix We’re In For 2013 finds that drivers in California are regularly traveling across heavily trafficked bridges rated structurally deficient – bridges that could become dangerous or closed without repair.

The report is the latest update from Transportation for America, which produced a similar report in 2011, based on a national database of bridge inspections maintained by the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA).

Despite some progress, one out of every eight bridges that motorists in California cross each day are likely to be deteriorating to some degree; and 12 percent of bridges are rated “structurally deficient” according to government standards – nearly 3,000 statewide. Of these just over 300 are additionally classified as fracture critical. While fracture critical bridges in good repair are safe, they are not engineered to have back-up support structures, meaning the failure of any individual load-bearing support could lead to collapse. This is what happened with the Skagit River I-5 bridge in Washington State that collapsed last month and reopened this morning.

“It is no secret that times are tough, but the safest and most economically viable approach we can take to California’s infrastructure is to protect the investments we’ve made with needed safety and structural upgrades,” said Shannon Tracey, Communications Director for TransForm. “Allowing roads and bridges to slip into disrepair ultimately costs state and local governments billions more than the cost of regular, timely repair. Deferring maintenance of bridges and highways can cost three times as much as preventative repairs. The backlog also increases safety risks, hinders economic prosperity and significantly burdens taxpayers.”

The need is growing rapidly, the report notes: While most bridges are designed to last 50 years before major overhaul or replacement, American bridges average 43 years old. Age is a major factor in bridge conditions. Roughly half of the structurally deficient bridges are 65 or older - and in just 10 years, one in four will be over 65.

According to national data compiled by Transportation for America, structurally deficient bridges in the Bay Area include:

  • Overpasses on Highway 101 in San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties, that carry over 64,000 to over 200,000 travelers daily
  • San Francisco: 3rd Street north of Cargo Way, built in 1945, which carries 50,000 travelers daily
  • Alameda County: Connecting overpass between I-580 West and I-80E/I-580W, built in 1935, which carries over 200,000 travelers daily
  • Marin County: Highway 1 bridge near Pt. Reyes Station, built in 1929, which carries 3,000 travelers daily
  • Contra Costa County: Byron Highway 4 miles south of Highway 4, built in 1964, which carries over 8,000 travelers daily

Progress on fixing deficient bridges has been slowing around the nation, and in California, there are actually more structurally deficient bridges today than there were in 1992. As the Metropolitan Transportation Commission nears final approval for Plan Bay Area, the region’s 25-year transportation spending plan, an increased focus on fixing existing roads and bridges will hopefully help reverse this trend. But at the same time, Plan Bay Area contains plans to build 170 miles of new highway lanes through the proposed Express Lane Network. New capacity will add to our maintenance needs and could hinder our ability to address existing infrastructure currently in need of repair. MTC should study conversion of regular highway lanes to create express lanes, which would save money and reduce the overall maintenance burden in the long run.

At the national level, Congress has repeatedly declared the condition and safety of our bridges to be of national significance. However, the money to fix them is getting harder to come by with declining gas tax revenues and a fiscal squeeze at all level of government. At the same time, Congress made the prospects for bridges even more uncertain last year by eliminating a dedicated fund for them in its update of the federal transportation program. The new law also reduces access to funds for 90 percent of structurally deficient bridges, most of which are owned by cash-strapped local governments. Now bridges are left to compete with every other priority.

California’s bridge condition improved since the 2011 report, with the share of deficient bridges dropping by 0.8 percentage points to 12.0%. The average age of California’s bridges is 47, and the average age of our structurally deficient bridges is 54.

“Preserving California’s existing transportation system is crucial to ensuring regional prosperity, safety and a higher quality of life,” said James Corless, director of Transportation for America. “The economic and social cost of neglect is simply too high. It is time for our policymakers to shore up our infrastructure and ensure Americans get the most bang for our transportation buck.”

Download the full report at t4america.org/resources/bridges/.

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TransForm works to create world-class public transportation and walkable communities in the Bay Area and California. TransForm builds diverse coalitions, influences policy, and develops innovate programs to improve the lives of all people and protect the environment. www.transformca.org