The Infrastructure Funding Debate

I originally planned on posting this topic back on May 30, 2013, but I wanted to make sure that everything in this post is as accurate as possible.

On May 23, 2013, a section of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington State, just north of Seattle, collapsed after a tractor trailer truck carrying an oversized load struck one of the span’s overhead beams. The bridge was constructed back in 1955, and many aging bridges like it have been classified as either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete”. Yet our federal government has done only so much to improve our nation’s aging, crumbling infrastructure network.

What will it take for our elected officials in Washington, DC to finally realize that a massive investment in our infrastructure is desperately needed? I started to ask myself that question about five years ago, when the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, MN collapsed during the height of the afternoon rush hour. That bridge was also declared as “structurally deficient”, but state inspectors did not see the need to conduct a massive overhaul of the bridge or even impose vehicular weight limits on the bridge.  In the months following the I-35W bridge collapse, the National Transportation Safety Board (or NTSB) determined that the bridge’s metal support (or gusset) plates that help strengthen the bridge’s joists failed, thus causing the collapse. The investigation noted that these plates were not as thick as they should have been, but also noted that the plates were not discovered in any reviews of the bridge’s design and construction.

Since the 2007 collapse, the state of Minnesota has put aside funds to repair, upgrade, and replace older bridges throughout the state. State officials have said that the increased funding has helped the state with making sure its bridges are structurally sound. However, according to this ABC News report from August 1, 2012, the president of the American Society of Engineers doesn’t believe that the federal government has done enough to help maintain and upgrade the nation’s aging infrastructure. I totally agree with the statement that he made while he spoke with ABC News.

So the question remains….what has been done so far? Well, not much if you look at the big picture. Although there have been recent efforts by Congress up in DC to set aside funds for infrastructure improvement, the amount of funds put aside are simply not enough to be able to upgrade or replace bridges that are in the most need of being repaired or replaced. This often leaves states to have to put the work through themselves with very limited funding of their own. This report that I found highlights the current situation in the state of Illinois, where many pre-1970s bridges and overpasses exist. You would think that the Minneapolis incident would have been the nation’s “wake up call” right?

WRONG! To this very day, no serious action regarding a massive investment in the nations infrastructure has been able to take place, largely due to the constant political battles in DC that often times push priorities to the sidelines. These heated, polarized battles have only gotten worse in recent years, and we all saw how virtually nothing was done to avoid the sequestration cuts from taking place. I really do not think that our infrastructure will ever get the attention it desperately needs, because these political wars are always left to rage on. In fact, in 2012, Congress eliminated a dedicated fund that was originally created to help keep our nation’s bridges maintained. Now, these projects must compete with other transportation and transit related projects, which in-turn, causes more headaches for everyone. With that said, I do not wish to make this post a purely political one, so let me get back to the topic at hand.

Here in Florida, there are some bridges that fall into the “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete” categories, but nowhere near as many as there are in the northern sections of the US. In fact, according to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), Florida is among the states with the lowest percentage of bridges that fall under these categories. Most of the aging bridges in Florida have either been upgraded to modern standards, or have been completely replaced.

One example of such a bridge in Florida is the 1956-era Gandy Bridge. If the bridge was still operating, it would likely be given a “functionally obsolete” classification due to its narrow travel lanes and lack of any emergency shoulders. Most (if not all) bridges and highway overpasses that were constructed after the 1960s here in Florida have emergency shoulders. The bridge would also have been put under the “structurally deficient” category as well due to its age. During the early to mid 1990s, FDOT decided that it was time to replace the aging span with a modern structure. Construction of that new bridge began in 1995 and was completed in December of 1996, initially opening to westbound traffic on December 21, 1996. FDOT closed the existing westbound bridge, which opened on October 20, 1975 for about two months to install lighting and conduct necessary bridge work. Once the work was finished, the westbound bridge reopened and the 1956-era bridge was permanently closed.

Now, imagine if the 1996 span was never built? The Tampa Bay area could have easily seen a debacle similar to what happened in Minneapolis, because the continued weight of vehicular traffic on the aging bridge would eventually cause sections of the bridge to give way. Had the newer span not been built when it was, the 1956 span would have been in its 57th year of operation this year. Again, the 1956 span has no emergency shoulders, so any kind of traffic occurrence…even just a disabled vehicle, often caused traffic to back up severely along this bridge.

Other bridges that fallen under the “structurally deficient” category in recent years include the John’s Pass drawbridge near Madeira Beach, the Cass St and Platt St Bridges in downtown Tampa, the Columbus Dr Bridge just north of downtown, and the Selmon Expressway overpass at 22nd St near the Port of Tampa. The John’s Pass bridge was recently replaced with a new, modern span that is higher than the original span so that its drawbridge doesn’t have to open so often. The Cass St Bridge underwent a major overhaul in 2009 and 2010 to replace old and heavily damaged components, bring the bridge up to modern standards, and rehabilitate the bridge’s antiquated structure. The same treatment was given to the Platt St Bridge to the south and the Columbus Dr bridge to the north this past year. The Selmon Expressway overpass at 22nd St is currently undergoing a retrofitting, rehabilitation, and widening project that is also rehabilitating and widening the expressway’s downtown viaduct. Both latter projects are occurring in conjunction with the Selmon Expressway/Interstate 4 connector highway that is slated to open next year.

Another obsolete bridge was the Pinellas Bayway drawbridge near St. Pete Beach, which like the 1956 Gandy Bridge, lacked emergency shoulders. That bridge is now being demolished after a higher fixed-span bridge was constructed. A second span will be built in the drawbridge’s place to increase the Bayway to four lanes. The southern Bayway drawbridge going into Tierra Verde was recently listed as “structurally deficient” but I’m sure that plans are in the works to eventually replace it.

If you would like to see what bridges in your area fall underneath either category, you can visit the National Bridge Inventory Database. Through a search of bridges in Florida, I was actually shocked to find that the bridges of 49th St (County Rd 611) over Roosevelt Blvd (State Rd 686) have been deemed as “Functionally Obsolete”. I’m not too sure as to why the overpass, constructed in 1993, would fall under this category. Another obsolete overpass I found through this search is the Dale Mabry Hwy overpass at Busch Blvd, which was originally constructed in 1965 but received a major overhaul in 1988. This interchange was constructed during a failed effort in the 1960s and 70s to bring Dale Mabry Hwy to freeway status. Several overpasses along the Veterans Expressway also have been deemed as obsolete, but they are all undergoing rehabilitation and widening as part of the expressway’s ongoing widening and modernization project.

In conclusion, much more needs to be done to strengthen our nation’s aging infrastructure. If the current trends and political battles continue, we will definitely be seeing more incidents like what happened in Minnesota and Washington state. It is definitely time for our elected officials in Washington D.C. to realize that this matter cannot wait in queue forever. Necessary action must be taken now in order to secure our infrastructure’s future.

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