Bridges decay, Congress stalls; needed repair would create jobs

Underside of bridge truss.
Underside of bridge truss. Getty Images/iStockphoto

If this country's current politics were less nonsensical, the confluence of thousands of dilapidated bridges with a persistent shortage of full-time jobs would produce an obvious solution: Put people to work rebuilding this critical infrastructure.

Alas, the Republicans who control the U.S. House are more interested in punishing the down-and-out than helping them, as this week's expected vote to cut food stamps reminds us. Or they'd just rather cast a 42nd symbolic vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

So Americans are left to wonder if the bridge that's part of their daily commute will hold up.

An Associated Press analysis of 607,380 bridges in the most recent federal National Bridge Inventory showed that 65,605 were classified as "structurally deficient," 20,808 as "fracture critical" and 7,795 as both.

None of that means a bridge is going to collapse. But all a fracture critical bridge needs to be at risk of collapsing is for a single, vital component to fail.

Structurally deficient bridges need rehabilitation or replacement because at least one major component has advanced deterioration or other problems.

In Kentucky, the latest federal inventory showed 145 bridges as both structurally deficient and fracture critical, but state officials say 16 of those bridges are no longer in both categories.

The AP explains that many fracture critical bridges were built in the 1950s to 1970s during construction of the interstate highway system and have now exceeded their life expectancy while often carrying more traffic than they were designed to handle.

If the designers had anticipated that we'd go through a period in the early 21st century when Congress would be held hostage by people who believe anything government does, including building bridges, is bad and that any tax is evil, maybe they would have designed bridges to last 100 years.

But they didn't. And here we are with a dysfunctional political system incapable of responding to a nation's basic needs.

In fairness, neither the current Congress nor the Tea Party should be held responsible for the neglect of infrastructure. That neglect has been ongoing for decades as America keeps counting on the free lunch we're sure is out there.

States are in a weak position to pay for repairs and replacements because fuel taxes, the main source of road and bridge funding, are falling short of need.

Economies depend on a nation's ability to transport workers, goods and customers. No one benefits more from good roads than the owners of businesses.

In an earlier, more can-do and less-polarized era, politicians and bureaucrats would have figured out a more workable tax mix, raised the dollars and fixed the roads and bridges, creating work for a lot of people in the process.