Twelve miles or so from where I sit writing this, a bridge on a heavily traveled highway right in the middle of farm country has been posted by the Department of Transportation with a 5-ton weight limit.
Flashing message signs and big red flags warn of the bridge posting that, at the height of harvest season, effectively bars many grain and module trucks from crossing the old concrete bridge that was probably built half a century or more ago and is now deemed structurally deficient.
There were, going into harvest, more than 200 bridges with posted weight limits on Mississippi highways and that many or more on county roads. And while a 5-ton limit is very low, many of the others are posted for weights less than optimum for trucks transporting crops to elevators and gins.
It’s not a situation unique to Mississippi, or Arkansas, or Louisiana, or anywhere in this country. America’s highway/bridge infrastructure is in pitiful shape, and it’s only getting worse.
There are, according to the Federal Highway Administration, almost 70,000 bridges in the U.S. now classified as structurally deficient — that’s more than 11 percent, one of every nine — and more are being added to the list weekly.
The average age of a bridge in the U.S. is 42 years, including many on the vital Federal Interstate System, and at the end of the last decade nearly one-third of the nation’s roughly 600,000 highway bridges were 50 years old or older (expected life span of most bridges is 50 years).
At current rates of aging and replacement, almost half of the bridges in the U.S. will require major structural investment within the next 15 years.
Mississippi, the report says, has 2,650 (15.5 percent) structurally deficient bridges; Louisiana 1,722 (13.3 percent); Arkansas 930 (7.4 percent); Tennessee 1,225 (19.8 percent; and Missouri, 4,071 (17 percent). Pennsylvania has the most, 5,906 (26.5 percent), Nevada the fewest, 39 (2.2 percent).
The American Society of Civil Engineers, in an assessment of the nation’s overall infrastructure, gave it a grade of “D,” and bridges a “C.”
In 2009, the Federal Highway Administration estimated that $70.9 billion was needed to catch up on the repair backlog for bridges alone, but federal bridge program appropriations amounted to just $5.2 billion.
Congress has repeatedly declared the condition and safety of U.S. bridges to be of national significance, a concern that hasn’t been backed by funding.
In its report, “The Fix We’re In: The State of Our Nation’s Bridges,” the organization Transportation for America notes that while federal program support increased by 14 percent from 2006-2009, state level needs rose a whopping 47 percent.
It urges that Congress provide states with increased resources for repairing and rebuilding structurally deficient bridges, and that funds allocated to states for bridge repair be used only for that purpose (currently, states can transfer bridge funds to other purposes.