There has been little focus or urgency in specifically replacing the older "fracture critical" crossings, in part because there is a massive backlog of bridge repair work for thousands of bridges deemed to be structurally problematic. Washington state Rep. Judy Clibborn, a Democrat who leads the House transportation committee, has been trying to build support for a tax package to pay for major transportation projects in the state. But her plan wouldn't have done anything to revamp the bridge that collapsed.
National bridge records say the I-5 crossing over the Skagit River had a sufficiency rating of 57.4 out of 100 — a score designed to gauge the ability of the bridge to remain in service. To qualify for federal replacement funds, a bridge must have a rating of 50 or below. A bridge must have a sufficiency rating of 80 or below to qualify for federal rehabilitation funding.
Hundreds of bridges in Washington state have worse ratings than the one that collapsed, and many around the country have single-digit ratings.
Clibborn said the Skagit River crossing wasn't even on the radar of lawmakers because state officials have to prioritize by focusing on bridges with serious structural problems that are at higher risk of imminent danger.
Along with being at risk of a fatal impact, the I-5 bridge was deemed to be "functionally obsolete," which essentially means it wasn't built to today's standards. Its shoulders were narrow, and it had low clearance.
There are 66,749 structurally deficient bridges and 84,748 functionally obsolete bridges in the U.S., including Puerto Rico, according to the Federal Highway Administration. That's about a quarter of the 607,000 total bridges nationally. States and cities have been whittling down that backlog, but slowly. In 2002, about 30 percent of bridges fell into one of those two categories.
Spending by states and local government on bridge construction adjusted for inflation has more than doubled since 1998, from $12.3 billion to $28.5 billion last year, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. That's an all-time high.
"The needs are so great that even with the growth we've had in the investment level, it's barely moving the needle in terms of moving bridges off these lists," said Alison Premo Black, the association's chief economist.
There is wide recognition at all levels of government that the failure to address aging infrastructure will likely undermine safety and hinder economic growth. But there is no consensus on how to pay for improvements. The federal Highway Trust Fund, which provides construction aid to states, is forecast to go broke next year. The fund gets its revenue primarily from federal gas and diesel taxes. But revenues aren't keeping up because people are driving less and there are more fuel-efficient cars on the road.
Neither Congress nor the White House has shown any willingness to raise federal gas taxes, which haven't been increased since 1993. Many transportation thinkers believe a shift to taxes based on miles traveled by a vehicle is inevitable, but there are privacy concerns and other difficulties that would preclude widespread use of such a system for at least a decade.
Transportation spending got a temporary boost with the economic stimulus funds approved by Congress after President Barack Obama was elected. Of the $27 billion designated for highway projects under the stimulus program, about $3 billion went to bridge projects, Black said.
States are looking for other means to raise money for highway and bridge improvements, including more road tolls, dedicating a portion of sales taxes to transportation and raising state gas taxes. Clibborn, the Washington state lawmaker, has proposed a 10-cent gas hike to help pay for projects, though the effort has been held up by a dispute over how to rebuild the Columbia River bridge connecting Vancouver, Wash., and Portland, Ore.
"We can't possibly do it all in the next 10 years," Clibborn said. "But we're going to do the first bite of the apple."
Lowy reported from Washington, D.C. AP Writers Manuel Valdes and Gene Johnson contributed to this report.
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