The aging Frederick Douglass bridge, shown here in December, is an example… (Nikki Kahn/THE WASHINGTON…)
A dozen blocks from the dome of the U.S. Capitol, a bridge rots as 70,000 drivers roar across it each day.
Now and then, a chunk of concrete shakes loose from the bridge’s underside and plops into the river, but mostly it is quiet corrosion that has eaten holes through the thick steel beams that were placed six decades ago. Most are the size of a quarter or no bigger than a dollar bill, but one girder looks like something that has been gnawed on by rats, so riddled with gaping holes that no wise person would dare stand on it.
There is no danger that the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge will collapse into the Anacostia River, District engineers say, but it is falling apart faster than repairs can be made.
It needs to be replaced, at a cost of almost $661 million in a project with an overall price tag of $906 million. Although it holds distinction as the bridge-gone-bad that is closest to the halls of Congress, lawmakers know they have bridges that are as bad or worse in their home states.
America’s bridges are falling down piece by piece, rust sprinkling like a summer shower from corrosion too intense to be covered by a fresh coat of paint. Concrete breaking away in chips and chunks.
No one is at risk. Not yet. And officials say they will shut down any bridge well before it becomes a danger.
“If any bridge is unsafe, we immediately take it out of service,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “However, it’s no secret that many aging bridges across the country are in need of repair or replacement, and there simply isn’t enough money in Washington to fund them all.”
Bridges have a life span, a limit to how long they can bear the weight and weather of daily stress. Then they need to be replaced. Generally they are built to stand for 50 years; the average bridge in the United States is 43.
That puts many of the nation’s 600,000 bridges at the end of their lives, with 70,000 of them officially judged structurally deficient last year. Pennsylvania leads the nation, with 5,906 troubled bridges. Virginia has 1,267, Maryland has 359 and the District has 30.
Bridges are just a fraction of the vast infrastructure boom that followed World War II and limped creaking and groaning into the 21st century.
Water systems need a $335 billion fix, and sewers $300 billion more, according to a series of reports by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The electrical grid requires investment of $107 billion by 2020. Airports need $114 billion over the same period. About $30 billion should be pumped into U.S. ports in the next eight years if they are to compete in global markets. Close to $40 billion is for a new aviation control system.
“Reliable, modern infrastructure isn’t a luxury,” said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the Obama administration’s nominee for secretary of state, who serves on two key Senate committees that deal with infrastructure issues. “It’s the lifeblood of our economy, the key to connecting our markets, moving products and people, generating and sustaining millions of jobs for American workers, to not wasting hundreds of thousands of hours and millions of gallons of gas on clogged highways.”
Perhaps the best bottom-line estimates came from an expert panel convened two years ago by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. To maintain infrastructure at current levels, $134 billion to $194 billion more needs to be spent each year through 2035. The federal government alone should come up with $2.3 trillion over that period.
The cost to keep bridges from getting worse is projected at a staggering $13 billion a year for the next 50 years, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. That number stands starkly against overall federal spending for roads, bridges and transit systems, currently about $54 billion a year. In past years, Washington has provided about half of the money that states used to repair and replace bridges.
But there is a bigger number: $140 billion, what the association says it would cost to repair every deficient or obsolete bridge in the nation.
Structural deficiency doesn’t mean a bridge is on the verge of collapse, but it is like a car that has gone 500,000 miles — the need for repair is constant and evermore expensive.
When a bridge structure weakens, weight restrictions can put it off limits to truck traffic, emergency vehicles and even school buses. Rerouting traffic causes delays and congestion, burns more gasoline and ultimately bumps up the cost of everything that arrives in the market or mall over the roadways.
As America’s insatiable desire for stuff has grown, truck travel nearly doubled over 20 years and is projected to double again by 2035. Obsolete bridges have become choke points, delaying trucks’ passage.