It was discouraging to read last week that so few badly needed bridge projects are attracting money from the federal stimulus package passed last winter.
After the tragic collapse of a major bridge in Minneapolis two years ago, an inventory of the nation’s bridges found many structural problems. Deficient bridges were named as a specific target when lawmakers passed the $787 billion stimulus plan.
Unfortunately, only a small percentage of the nation’s most deficient bridges are scheduled to receive stimulus funds, while much of that money is going to widen or repave highways or perform repairs on bridges that are in such good shape that they wouldn’t usually even qualify for federal funding.
The problem seems to be that major bridge projects that often require years of planning and construction work simply didn’t fit into the federal government’s definition of “shovel ready” projects. An Associated Press story published in Friday’s Journal-World quotes an administration official as saying that while officials understand the desire to tackle “longer-term, gleam-in-the-eye projects,” what states were told now was “please, give us your shovel-ready projects.”
Replacing dangerous bridges hardly seems like a “gleam-in-the-eye” idea. It’s more like a crying safety need. Yet, according to the Associated Press report, nearly half of the 2,476 bridges currently scheduled to receive stimulus money had received high marks from inspectors. Nonetheless, those bridges will receive more than $1.2 billion in stimulus money while bridges in far greater need of repair will get nothing.
The AP analysis determined that the 1,286 deficient bridges that will get $2.2 billion in stimulus funds represent less than 1 percent of the more than 150,000 bridges nationwide that engineers have labeled as deficient or obsolete. Bridge projects represent only 12 percent of the stimulus spending on road projects, while 70 percent of the money is being spent on repaving or widening roads, work for which planning can be done much faster.
The primary goal of the stimulus package was to create jobs and get the U.S. economy going. Despite continued high unemployment across the country, there are signs the stimulus package is helping stabilize the economy.
Unfortunately, the speedy — perhaps even hasty — decisions that had to be made about that spending appear to have resulted in many worthwhile and desperately needed bridge projects being left behind.