US transport infrastructure: time to bridge the funding gap

The recent spate of bridge collapses in the US provides a graphic illustration of the state of the nation’s aging infrastructure. The American dream of big cars and freeways has run its course…

Funding the vital infrastructure upgrade is taxing both state and federal administrations…

Gail Taylor reports

So how big is the issue? Statistics from the US Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) state that some 68,842 bridges – more than 11% of the nation’s total highway bridges – are classed as ‘structurally deficient’. Such bridges are defined as needing significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement. Add to that The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure which currently rates US bridges at a middling C+ and the picture’s not looking too rosy. According to ASCE there’s also a significant percentage of bridges classed as ‘functionally obsolete’, with the average age of a US bridge currently standing at 42. Many of the bridges built in the great infrastructure boom of the 50s and 60s were only designed and built with an intended lifespan of around 50 years.

Alarming as these figures sound, there has been some improvement over the past two decades: back in 1992 a massive 22% of bridges were deemed structurally deficient. The ASCE also claims that most of America’s bridges are regularly inspected and are “extraordinarily safe”. However, with rapidly dwindling state and federal funding for on-going maintenance programmes, there’s a large and brooding question mark over how to keep such progress going in coming years.

It’s a question that needs some progressive answers urgently, because as the ASCE’s Managing Director of Government Relations and Infrastructure Initiatives, Brian Pallasch, states, “America’s bridges and roads are the foundation for connecting our communities and businesses. Our transportation infrastructure is essential for connecting our lives to an ever-expanding world of opportunity. However, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that to eliminate the nation’s bridge deficit backlog by 2028, we would need to invest $20.5 billion annually, while only $12.8 billion is being spent currently.”

The cost of not spending money
Not only is there potential damage to both local and national economies to consider, there’s the threat to human lives. Although being rated ‘structurally deficient’ doesn’t necessarily mean that a bridge is unsafe – and collapses are mercifully rare so far – when a bridge does fail the consequences can be catastrophic. Notable tragedies in recent years include the collapse of the Queen Isabella Causeway in Texas in 2001 in which eight people died. Then five years ago in 2007, the world looked on horrified as the 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River, killing 13 and injuring 145.

Next came WashingtonState. On 27 May 2013, the four-lane interstate 5 bridge collapsed about half-way between Seattle and Vancouver. It now seems the failure was caused by a truck’s load hitting one of the overhead trusses, but interestingly the bridge was not classified as structurally deficient as first reported. It was however, functionally obsolete and, in common with thousands of US bridges, ‘fracture critical’. In other words it would only take one component of the bridge to fail or be seriously damaged for the whole structure to crumple. Several vehicles were sent plummeting into the icy waters of the SkagitRiver, but thankfully there were no fatalities this time round.

What’s going wrong?

James Corless, Director of Transportation for America – a non-governmental organisation advocating investment in fixing existing infrastructure – states, “While this particular bridge was not considered structurally deficient at the time of its shocking collapse, it is one of thousands that are well past their intended lifespan and carrying far more traffic than intended at the time they were built. Considering that progress on repairing deficient bridges has slowed in the last ten years, Congress took a major gamble in last summer’s new transportation law by eliminating dedicated funding for repairing highway bridges. Now bridge repair is forced to compete with other transportation needs for funding.”

Quote_3And therein lies part of the rub. Many states have been using funding from the ailing federal Highway Trust Fund to plough into new infrastructure, rather than devoting it to maintenance and repairs. Quite simply, a beaming state official cutting the ribbon on a flashy new project makes for better PR vote-wise than an engineer in a hard hat fixing an old bridge. Perceived wisdom is that new infrastructure equals new jobs and a boost to the economy, which of course it does. However, according to Transportation for America repair work on roads and bridges “generates 16 per cent more jobs than construction of new bridges and roads”.

Another important factor is a reduction in revenue from both federal and state motor fuel tax, referred to as ‘gas tax’, through which state governments have historically paid for a large part of their transportation infrastructure costs. Gas tax has not risen since 1993, Americans are driving less according to the US Department of Transportation, and the cars they drive are more fuel efficient. Gas tax is paid into the Highway Trust Fund, but the combination of falling revenues and massive demands on the Fund have led to a prediction by the Congressional Budget Office that it will be bankrupt by autumn 2014.

Funding the way forward

A report published by The Heritage Foundation in 2012 states, “Governments clearly need to find some source of funding in the coming years to rebuild the ageing road network that has fostered US economic productivity for the past 50 years. The federal government is steadily backing away from this responsibility, but it still restricts states’ options for financing and modernization of their own roads. If Washington is not going to be part of the transportation solution, it should simply get out of the way and let states find their own ways forward.”

Some states have already implemented their own funding programmes with great success. Glenn Myers is Chief Technical Professional – Transportation for civil engineering giant, Atkins Global (North America). He comments, “Many bridge owners – state, county or municipality – are also turning to tolling and Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) to fund capacity improvements and some rehabilitation projects.”

And funding needn’t necessarily come from domestic investors alone. Myers continues, “A number of international investors have already provided financing for several PPP projects in the US.” One such example is that of global specialist in project finance, Macquarie Capital, which has backed a number of US projects including the Port of Miami Tunnel.

Quote_1While PPPs can be a very valuable tool, as evidenced by neighbouring Canada’s successful and increasing use of them, they cannot provide the entire solution. To this end, a number of federal initiatives have been put in place. Myers continues, “Funding not only has to address ageing bridge infrastructure, but also address increasing capacity demand of functionally obsolete highways and bridges. The funding requirements to meet the needs of all the infrastructure in the US is tremendous. To help address the funding issue, U.S. Rep. John Delaney (Democrat-Maryland) introduced The Partnership to Build America Act (H.R. 2084) with bi-partisan support, co-sponsored by 13 Republican and 13 Democratic representatives. This bill proposes to create financial resources to help upgrade the nation’s aging infrastructure, creating a $50 billion American Infrastructure Fund (AIF) that could be leveraged to $750 billion.”

Last year’s Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Bill has set aside £1 billion for projects of national and regional significance and extended the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) credit support programme. This can now led up to $750,000 million in financial year 2013 and $1 billion in 2014. Discretionary grants are available from the US Department of Transportation’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) programme which has $473.847 million in its coffers this year.

Whatever route Congress and individual states do eventually choose adopt, there is no doubting the US has come to that bridge and it is now high time to cross it. When it does, as Myers concludes, “Business opportunities for engineering firms and associated businesses will follow the funding.” There is certainly plenty of work out there to be done.

Gail Taylor

Philip Bates, director of strategic transport at Buro Happold responds;