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Neglected road repairs threaten safety, economy

About $2.2 trillion is needed to repair and maintain our roads and bridges, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

When roads and bridges are allowed to deteriorate, the ultimate repair costs skyrocket.

Today, about $32 billion in federal funds get spent each year to maintain existing highways, according to the federal National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission. But $64 billion more is needed annually.

This need is stressed throughout Barry B. LePatner's engaging book "Too Big To Fall: America's Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward."

"Our outdated and overused road system is falling apart," he warns.

Problems revealed in "Too Big To Fall" seem especially relevant during today's contentious Congressional debates about reducing the federal budget, debates that continue to disrupt passage of long-term federal highway funding.

LePatner, a New York lawyer and business advisor, tells the story of the I-35 West Bridge in Minneapolis, which collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007, killing 13 and injuring 145 people.

That bridge had been deteriorating for years. But top Minnesota Department of Transportation officials repeatedly ignored increasingly poor ratings given to the bridge for 16 years before the collapse.

After that tragedy, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, vetoed a "badly needed transportation funding bill," LePatner writes. State legislators overrode his veto.

"This isn't a bridge that failed. This is government that failed," said one Minnesota legislator.

The book also focuses on the tragedy of Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, which collapsed into the Ohio River on Dec. 15, 1967, killing 46 people.

The Silver Bridge collapse, the worst bridge disaster in American history, spurred Congress to pass the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1968, which created the first national "comprehensive and standardized bridge inspection system."

Such tragedies are likely to become more frequent, LePatner argues, unless we start spending more on maintaining our roads and bridges.

Today, the United States has 72,000 "structurally deficient" and 78,000 "functionally obsolete" bridges, about one of every four bridges in the country.

Road use is increasing dramatically.

Between 1990 and 2006, the number of miles traveled by vehicles increased by 41 percent. But the available miles of roads rose only 4 percent.

"Maintenance cannot wait until there is a problem," LePatner writes. "Keeping up is much easier and less costly than catching up."

LePatner offers several reasons for our failure to maintain existing roads and bridges, including:

 

  • A widespread fixation on building new roads and bridges, rather than maintaining existing structures.
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  • The failure of many Americans to recognize the importance of taxes, especially gasoline taxes, in funding maintenance projects.
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  • Lack of state and local funds put toward maintenance. When a road or bridge reaches a critical stage of disrepair, federal funds typically pay to fix it.
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  • Political pressure exerted to prevent state and local officials from spending funds on thorough inspections and needed repairs.
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    American transportation officials today have nothing but difficult choices, LePatner writes.

    The Williamsburg Bridge connecting Manhattan with Brooklyn over the East River, was deteriorating during the same time as the Minneapolis bridge.

    But starting in 1987, Sam Schwartz, deputy commissioner and chief engineer of the New York City Department of Transportation, insisted on beginning needed repairs. He observed cracking metal plates and bridge pedestals and believed the bridge structure was a few inches from total collapse.

    Repairs were costly and controversial. There was a furor when the bridge was closed for more than three months. Schwarz insisted.

    LePatner counts Schwartz as a rare hero.

    "The instances of heroic action by transportation officials in these times of shortchanged transportation budgets are few and far between, " LePatner writes.

    Schwarz not only prevented a possible collapse, LePatner points out, but also saved the historic Williamsburg Bridge itself, and many more hundreds of millions that would have been needed to construct a new bridge.

    While the public needs to spend more, it also needs to spend more wisely.

    The construction industry is "the most inefficient industry in our nation," contributing to financial problems by charging $120 billion for "cost overruns" each year in highway construction, LePatner writes.

    New "Public-Private Partnerships" could be beneficial. Two examples are the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road, where foreign investors gained the right to collect tolls for decades in exchange for initial cash payments to those governments.

    But LePatner warns such arrangements can increase costs and tolls. Those projects also typically hire non-union employees, sparking opposition from public employee unions.

    The American Trucking Association opposes public-private partnerships, especially after seeing steep cost increases imposed on drivers using the Indiana Toll Road.

    State transportation agencies must return to hiring highly-trained engineers, who typically are skilled at diagnosing structural problems on roads and bridges.

    "Visual inspection of bridges by minimally trained personnel who are not engineers remains the norm in state departments of transportation," LePatner writes.

    Today, poor road conditions cost American motorists $54 billion a year in repairs, an average of $275 for each vehicle owner.

    By making it more difficult and more costly to drive, poor bridges and roads also increase the costs every American pays for goods and services that rely on transportation networks.

    "By inaction," the book concludes, "we are greatly increasing the risk of jeopardizing our national destiny and damaging the heritage we will leave for generations to come."

    Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-3348-5164.


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