There are about 630,000 bridges in the United States, ranging from impressive new structural creations like Margaret Hunt Hill bridge in Dallas to deteriorating slabs of concrete in desperate need repair. It’s that last growing group of bridges, ports, and highways that represent the slowing decaying infrastructure that was once the best in the world.
In a new 60 Minutes report, host Steve Kroft lays down some knowledge that, for all of us bridge-travelling, highway-driving citizens, would be pretty alarming: 1 out of every 9 bridges are in various degrees of disrepair. That’s around 70,000 bridges total if you’re keeping track. This isn’t exactly startlingly new information, an AP report last year reported similar numbers, but rather a reminder that the problem isn’t going away as long as the government continues to ignore it.
That doesn’t mean all of these structures are on the verge of collapse with every passing car, train, or pedestrian, but it does mean they are in desperate need of TLC in the form of billions and billions of dollars — money that just doesn’t exist. Kroft explains the political conundrum:
The major source of revenue, the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which gets its money from the federal gas tax at $US0.18 a gallon, is almost insolvent. Former transportation secretary Ray LaHood says it will go broke by next spring, unless something is done. “That was the pot of money that over 50 years helped us create the best interstate system in the world, which is now falling apart.”
With infrastructure that used to be a global leader, the US now sits in 12th place according to a Global Competitiveness report, and with no plan to raise more funds for a major infrastructure overhaul, there’s reason to expect that ranking will plunge further.
Bridges are only part of the problem. 60 Minutes also highlights that one-third of the country’s highways need attention, commuter rail is laughable in comparison to countries like Japan, and seaports are also woefully unprepared for a new generation of container ships.
Great infrastructure doesn’t require much thought from the public, because it just works — day-in and day-out. But when great turns to poor, that’s when you get delays, economic failure, and even fatalities.
Picture: 60 Minutes. View of the Portal bridge on the Hackensack River in New Jersey, which was based on bridge designs from the 1840s and was already considered obsolete shortly after its completion in 1910. It’s still in use today.