Paying for That Road, Bridge & Overpass

Allsop Bridge in Jacksonville Florida

Paying for That Road, Bridge & Overpass
| published July 13, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

The majority of the major highways and interstates in the United States were built during an infrastructure boom beginning in the 1950s and lasting until the middle 1970s. There have been expansions, improvements and enhancements, and some states and metro areas have been the beneficiaries of more improvement dollars than others—perimeter highways were built, connectors completed, some overpasses added, a few replaced.

But on the whole, an interstate highway system once regarded as the envy of the world is now facing advanced old age. The cost associated with merely bringing it up to minimal levels of safety and raising its capacity to tolerable levels of traffic flow is staggering. By some estimates at least $2.3 trillion will need to be spent by local, state and Federal government on infrastructure—defined as water, roadway and energy projects—between now and the end of 2029. Perhaps as much as two-thirds of that spending, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, will be required just to keep our roads and highways passable.

Winter raised the ante in scores of states, but most especially in the Midwest and Northeast, where the organic pace of wear-and-tear was accelerated tenfold by prolonged and frequent freezing temperatures. Even recently resurfaced roads suffered in places like Chicago, New York, Boston and Cleveland, and the damaging effects were not limited to potholes on side streets and suburban avenues. Severe cold weather, heavy snowfalls and abundant ice were responsible for increasing the pace of cracking, stressing,  fracturing, and morphing otherwise tolerable aging into immediate deterioration.

But while the Federal government is looking for ways to reduce spending, the Highway Trust Fund—monies for which will run out this summer—will be an empty piggybank soon. With Washington seemingly gridlocked on nearly every issue that passes through its corridors and hallways, states and cities may be forced to step more boldly into the breach and raise the needed cash to start some of the most urgent projects. Among those infrastructure issues highest on the critical list are bridges and overpasses.

Depending on the source, the number of bridges in need of immediate attention range from as low as 5000 to as many as 9,500. According to the Department of Transportation the total number of U.S. bridges and overpasses identified as “deficient” may be closer to 63,000. Though many of those may require significant repair and modifications, they are in little danger of total collapse. And though there have been shocking and deadly bridge failures in the last six or seven years—such as the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Minnesota—some officials say what’s needed most is a way to prioritize by focusing repair and replacement efforts on those 5000 or so at the top of the list.

Cities and states will begin to pick up the slack on these repairs, but that process can be fraught with political peril—no one wants to be the local candidate or elected official who says taxes need to go up—and in some cases, very nearly out of range of the budgets of local jurisdictions. Other cities and states will borrow the money, and in some cases may go as far as seeking investors to help cover the tab.

But where some see a glass half-empty—gloom, bad news, and yet another example of how Washington can’t, or won’t, work on a critical issue—economists see the glass as half-full. All those overpass and bridge repairs mean tens of thousands of jobs, and a multiplier effect which might bring robustness back to an otherwise anemic recovery.

At the start of the mortgage meltdown in 2008, when thousands of people working in construction were being tossed into unemployment each month, presidential candidate Mike Huckabee had the modest proposal that instead of raising the stakes on benefits such as food stamps and unemployment checks, the Federal government use that money to fast-track and implement a major infrastructure overhaul. Federal facilitators could cut through red tape and permitting, and roads, highways, bridges and overpasses could come first. Huckabee famously suggested that I-95 could be rebuilt and revamped from Bangor, Maine to Miami, Florida. The top-to-bottom I-95 project alone, by some estimates, would have employed as many as 80,000 skilled workers across dozens of states.

Bridge and overpass repairs also benefit the economy by keeping transportation and heavy traffic flowing without delays. Many deficient bridges and overpasses are perfectly safe for routine auto and SUV traffic, but when bridges begin to deteriorate from a structural standpoint, they can become unsafe for heavy loads. The result is that trucks must bypass these routes, and that can drive up the cost of everything—from groceries to gasoline, from construction supplies to deliveries. Even buses can be affected. Worse, diverted truck traffic then clogs local and regional roads if alternate limited-access roads are not available. This is why economists and business analysts say that newly repaired and modified overpasses and bridges inject an indirect, but immediate, benefit into the economy, and consumers often see the reward in lower prices.

Interstate 95, one of the most heavily travelled roads along the U.S. east coast, now serves as a potholed, cracked and rusty reminder that these bridges and overpasses are still in need of repair and that widening and resurfacing is still pending. In Baltimore and the District of Columbia there are scores of deficient bridges, and half of those can be found along I-95. Other spans in critical condition along the East Coast corridor can be found in Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey.

Pennsylvania has the worst roster of deficient bridges, with nearly one fourth of all its overpasses and bridges in need of attention, and nearly 500 on the urgent list. In Virginia, at least nine percent of its spans require repairs or modifications. Maryland has roughly 300 bridges in need of repair.

Some states are in a better position to fund the projects directly. Others, like cash-strapped Pennsylvania, may be able to use a combination of investors and loans to fast-track the most urgent work. Delaware, Florida, New Jersey and Texas are in good shape, according to some analysts, to tackle the critical repairs in the near future. And in some of those states, adding newly built spans can take the load off of nearby older spans already too heavily travelled. Using new construction methods and fast-tracking the design work, new bridges and overpasses can offer immediate relief to nearby overburdened roads.

Some analysts suggest that since it is unable to act directly, an otherwise gridlocked Congress may need to relax some guidelines, and offer states and local governments the flexibility to act swiftly, before the costs of these projects become even more expensive, or before more bridge or overpass failures occur.  Such an easing of the rules on infrastructure might appeal to both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.

In a report for the Council on Foreign Relations, infrastructure consultant Scott Thomasson says that public-private partnerships (PPPs) may offer a solution, wherein states and cities can forge their own flexible arrangements with investors and builders. Another solution, certainly not elegant and not always popular, would be imposing tolls on specific roads. Though generally banned on U.S. interstates (there are a few exceptions), Congress and the Department of Transportation may consider relaxing such guidelines for those states facing the most urgent infrastructure pressures. Though tolls and certain types of user fees can sometimes be unpopular, they generally win easily when stacked up against tax increases. Tolls and user fees also place the onus directly on those who most frequently use specific roads and bridges.

Florida, a state always under pressure to improve infrastructure, has found this method an effective way to manage highway congestion while also maintaining a reasonable political balance. In addition to the “Mainline” leg of the Florida Turnpike, a pay-as-you-go road stretching from just south of Ocala down to Miami, the sunshine state has numerous other toll roads set on a short-distance fee system. The Suncoast Parkway connects central Tampa to four counties to its north, and users can purchase a pass or pay at toll stations set at periodic points along the route. Likewise, the Seminole Expressway/Central Florida Greeneway connects parts of Osceola, Orange and Seminole counties northeast of Orlando.

A similar limited-access, multilane highway is under construction west of Jacksonville, and when completed the First Coast Parkway will form a perimeter road far outside of the existing I-295 beltway system, connecting areas west of the city with the southwest, and eventually crossing three counties and connecting toward the east where it will terminate between St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra. The cost of construction, developed and built in stages (parts of the road are open now) will be offset by the funds collected at toll booths along the route.

In his report, Thomasson also stresses cutting red tape by greatly reducing layers of studies and overlapping committees, and instead creating a one-stop approval process, a plan endorsed by, among many others, President Barack Obama.

Green advocates say that bridge and overpass repairs may be necessary and road improvements sometimes necessary, but they stress that states and cities should also seek to develop alternate forms of transit, including electric rail and electric bus lines linking residential neighborhoods to office and manufacturing areas. Included in any proposal, they suggest, should be greenways for cyclists and pedestrians. By combining more mass transit into the footprint and the long-range plan, more people could keep their cars parked and off already crowded urban roads. Fewer cars on the road would mean slower deterioration to roads, overpasses and bridges.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Taxing the Green Driver; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 28, 2014.