It's Just a Matter of Time Until the Next Bridge Collapse

A more flexible approach to tolling would unleash billions of dollars in badly-needed investment.

The Skagit River bridge collapse.
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Patrick Jones is executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

Last week's collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state, on the eve of the travel-heavy Memorial Day Weekend, was unfortunately the latest sign of what's ahead if America fails to address a deepening highway infrastructure deficit.  

The 58-year-old bridge had been listed as "functionally obsolete" in the 2012 National Bridge Inventory, meaning that it was no longer "functionally adequate for its task." The episode shines a national spotlight on the stark reality of a highway network already in serious need of repair, made worse by a deepening transportation funding crisis.

It's a problem that extends far beyond the Skagit River. In its 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that one-quarter of the 607,380 bridges across the United States were functionally obsolete or structurally deficient in 2012 – placing the cost of repairs at $76 billion. The sheer weight of the evidence shows that it's just a matter of time before the next bridge failure.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

No one can claim to be surprised that much of America's highway network is in dire need of maintenance, repair or replacement. Shelves of legislative reports and independent studies have confirmed that the highway infrastructure gap is becoming more serious by the year, and that state and federal gas tax revenues can't keep up with the need to operate, maintain, repair and rebuild our roads.

Initial reports from the Skagit River indicated that a truck with an oversize load may have taken out a key component of the bridge. But as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee told the New York Times, "it shouldn't take an oversize load to let us know we have an oversized problem." In its report card, the Society of Civil Engineers delivered grades of C+ for the nation's bridges and D for its roads, and estimated that an additional $846 billion will be needed to bring surface transportation up to a B grade by 2020.

That funding won't likely come from traditional sources. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Highway Trust Fund will be bankrupt toward the end of 2014 without a new infusion of funds. Meanwhile, costs are rising as the highway system ages.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

When you buy a house, you expect to invest in regular upkeep. But there's an odd myth that our highway infrastructure is already paid for. Roads, bridges and tunnels need regular repair and maintenance, and many of them are due to be rebuilt, but it's hard to think of any state that can absorb the cost of replacing decades-old interstate highways. They'll need tolls or new taxes to build the roads we'll be using for the next 50 years.

With our highway infrastructure deteriorating before our eyes, standing still is not an option. Just two days before the Skagit River collapse, the Society of Civil Engineers' president-elect nominee, Tony Puntin, calculated the costs the United States will incur by 2020 if we fail to close the infrastructure gap: $3.1 trillion in gross domestic product; $1.1 trillion in trade; $3,100 per year in personal disposable income per household due to rolling blackouts, lost travel time and higher vehicle maintenance costs; and 3.5 million jobs.

And none of that factors in the potential loss of life that was thankfully avoided in the Skagit River collapse. In California, the poor condition of the road network already causes more accidental injuries and deaths than drugs and alcohol combined. Without a viable revenue stream, the status of our nation's surface transportation will continue to deteriorate.

Already, highway congestion costs American commuters $121 billion in lost time and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel, according to the latest Urban Mobility Report by the Texas Transportation Institute. By contrast, toll roads in nearly three-dozen states are a shining example of everything we expect our highways to be: fast, safe, reliabl, and cost-effective. For example: