Brett J. Blackledge and Matt Apuzzo
Washington — Thousands of unsafe or decaying bridges carrying 100 million drivers a day must wait for repairs because states are spending stimulus money on spans that are in good shape or on such easier projects as repaving roads, an Associated Press analysis shows.
President Barack Obama urged Congress last winter to pass his $787 billion stimulus package so some of the economic recovery money could be used to rebuild what he called America’s “crumbling bridges.”
Lawmakers said it was a historic chance to chip away at the $65 billion backlog of deficient structures, often neglected until a catastrophe such as the Minneapolis bridge collapse two years ago.
States, however, have other plans. Of the 2,476 bridges scheduled to receive stimulus money so far, nearly half have passed inspections, according to federal data. Those 1,123 sound bridges received such high inspection ratings that they normally would not qualify for federal bridge money, yet they will share in more than $1.2 billion in stimulus money.
The wooden bridge built in 1900 carrying Harlan Springs Road in Berkeley County, W.Va., is one of the nation’s unsafe structures not being repaired. About 2,700 cars cross it every day. But with holes in the wooden deck, corroded railings and missing steel poles, the 300-foot rickety span only holds one car at a time.
The bridge is an example of how Obama’s call to spend recovery money quickly has clashed with other goals of the stimulus, such as targeting high-unemployment areas and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. State transportation officials say the need for speed makes it hard to funnel money into needy counties or to take on extensive bridge repairs that can involve years of planning and construction.
Repaving or widening roads requires less planning and can be done quickly, which is why such projects account for 70 percent of the $17 billion in transportation stimulus money approved so far. Bridge projects represent 12 percent.
The spending decisions by states are OK with the Obama administration.
Ed Deseve, the president’s chief executive of the stimulus, said the administration understands the desire to tackle “longer-term, gleam-in-the-eye projects” but told states “please, give us your shovel-ready projects.”
The idea, he said, was to provide an immediate jolt to the nation’s economy.
“We’re delighted states are able to move quickly,” Deseve said.
A few states, such as Virginia and South Carolina, are targeting their troubled bridges. In all, 1,286 deficient or obsolete bridges are expected to share $2.2 billion in stimulus money for repairs, the AP analysis shows.
But that’s less than 1 percent of the more than 150,000 bridges nationwide that engineers have labeled deficient or obsolete. Of those, more than 39,000 are considered the worst, rated poor in at least one structural component and eligible to be replaced with federal money.
Transportation officials said the stimulus program’s mandates — shovel-ready projects that can be finished in three years and create jobs quickly — made it nearly impossible to focus on bad bridges that weren’t already scheduled for repairs.
“The feds had their own priorities, and their big priority was jobs and the economy,” said John Zicconi, spokesman for the Vermont Agency of Transportation. “As a result, we had to move things quickly. I don’t fault that.”
That’s not exactly how it was billed. Obama used the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge during the Great Depression as an example of how transportation money in the new stimulus law could “remake the face of the nation.”
“It’s what we’re doing once more, by building a 21st century infrastructure that will make America’s economy stronger and America’s people safer,” Obama said in March.
While the stimulus will pay for a few such projects, like the massive new Cleveland Innerbelt Bridge, for the most part the money will not build a 21st century transportation system. It will repave the 20th century system.
After the stimulus bill was passed in February, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick was asked on National Public Radio to list projects the stimulus would pay for.
“I can tell you that, for example, we have some prominent bridges that are structurally deficient that we want to get to as soon as possible for reasons of safety,” he said.
But Patrick knew that months earlier he and state legislators had passed a $3 billion bridge program that didn’t rely on stimulus money. Massachusetts, a state with more than half of its 5,063 bridges deemed deficient or obsolete by inspectors, so far is spending recovery money on only one bridge.
Some states did target bad bridges with economic recovery money.
In Virginia, state bridge engineer Kendal Walus recalled bosses telling him last fall, as talk of a stimulus was just beginning, that the state would probably make bridges a priority.
“They said, get as many bridge projects as I could get, and they’d be willing to entertain it,” Walus said.
Engineers selected small bridges that could be fixed without the long engineering process and environmental permitting normally required for larger structures. As a result, 69 of the 73 Virginia bridges receiving stimulus money are either deficient or obsolete, according to inspection records.
But targeting deficient bridges with new federal money isn’t as easy as it sounds, officials in other states said.
Washington state, for example, struggled with a plea from King County officials to help pay for the replacement of the 75-year-old drawbridge that serves as a major corridor in Seattle and connects two of the city’s industrial areas. The bridge’s cracked concrete foundations, widespread corrosion in steel beams and deteriorating moveable spans make it one of the nation’s worst still in daily operation — scoring a 3 out of 100 for structural sufficiency.
State officials couldn’t commit stimulus money to the project, which already was getting local and state money, said Paula Hammond, the state’s transportation secretary. The South Park bridge was not a state priority, and officials needed to focus on projects that could be completed quickly, Hammond said.
With $27 billion in highway and bridge money, the stimulus provided an important stopgap but is too little to remake the U.S. transportation infrastructure, she said.
“If you wanted that to happen,” Hammond said, “you’d probably have to multiply that number by 10.”