TRANSPORTATION FOR AMERICA
Oregon’s deficient bridges: How will we pay to repair them?
Every day, millions of people from all walks of life in Oregon cities, towns and rural areas travel over one of the state’s 8,052 bridges — essentially any structure longer than 20 feet that carries vehicle traffic. These bridges carry commuters through and within our cities, move people from town to town, help farmers bring their goods to market, and get freight from A to B each and every day.
But today, far too many of these bridges are rated structurally deficient — bridges in urgent need of repair or replacement. Oregon today has 439 structurally deficient bridges, representing 5.5 percent of the state’s 8052 bridges. Those 439 bridges represent a looming crisis for the state.
The average age of these sub-par bridges is 55 years — over the typical design life of 50 years and 14 years older than the average age of all Oregon bridges (41 years old). More than one in twelve Oregon bridges were built before 1948 — which means more than 680 bridges are older than the Korean War and creation of Medicare.
Oregon drivers collectively took close to 533 million trips over deficient bridges in 2014, nearly twice the total of 269 million in 2000. That’s more than 1.4 million trips per day or over 1,000 trips every minute taken over deficient Oregon bridges in 2014.
What does “structurally deficient” mean?
Highway bridges have three primary components: 1) the deck, which is the surface of the bridge that cars, trucks and people contact — the pavement, typically; 2) the superstructure, which consists of the components that support the deck; and 3) the substructure, which is where the bridge contacts the ground. Each of these bridge features is given a rating between 0 and 9 when inspected, with 9 signifying the best condition. Federal guidelines classify bridges as “structurally deficient” if one of these three key components is rated at 4 or less (poor or worse), meaning engineers have identified a major defect in its support structure or its deck. (There are a handful of other criteria that can result in a deficient grade, but for the majority of deficient bridges, one of these three primary components rates a 4 or below.) Federal law requires states to inspect all bridges 20 feet or longer at least every two years, though states typically inspect structurally deficient bridges far more often.
Oregonians and Oregon businesses rely on bridges each day that are subject to closure or weight restriction if increased maintenance and reconstruction are not undertaken — a potentially crippling impact on personal travel and freight movement.
Who will pay the tab?
The funds to repair bridges come mostly from gas taxes at the federal and state levels, from property or other taxes at the local level, and state and local bonding. The $1.3 billion Oregon Transportation Investment Act III (OTIA III) program, passed in 2003, repaired many critical structurally deficient bridges. But it did so by selling bonds that the state now must pay off with current revenues, reducing the funding available to repair other aging bridges today that the program did not address.
Federal dollars are flat or falling; the federal tax has lost about a third of its value to inflation since it was last raised in 1993. The situation is worse at the local level. No federal money is dedicated to repairing local bridges — and the federal contributions that once helped address the backlog are shrinking.
About Transportation for America
Transportation for America is an alliance of elected, business and civic leaders from communities across the country, united to ensure that states and the federal government step up to invest in smart, homegrown, locally-driven transportation solutions. These are the investments that hold the key to our future economic prosperity.