Washington Tens of 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 already in good shape or on easier projects like 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 like the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed two years ago this Saturday.
States, however, have other plans. Of the 2,476 bridges scheduled to receive stimulus money so far, nearly half have passed inspections with high marks, 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 and corroded railings and missing steel poles, only one car at a time can travel the 300-foot rickety span.
The bridge is an example of how Obama’s call to spend recovery money quickly — on “shovel ready” projects to get people back to work — 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.
For its analysis, the AP asked each state and the District of Columbia to identify every bridge on which it planned some work using stimulus money. In some states that represented a final list. In others, new projects could be added. Most states provided project costs, but some did not. Some states included in their costs other road work related to the bridge project, like paving or widening nearby roads.
The AP then researched each bridge using the latest inspection data available from the Transportation Department.
This analysis found that:
l Many states did not make bridge work a priority in stimulus spending. More than half plan work on fewer than two dozen bridges and 18 states plan fewer than 10 projects.
l In 24 states, at least half of the bridges being worked on with stimulus money were not deficient.
l In 15 states, at least two-thirds of the bridges receiving stimulus money are not deficient.