Richmond-region bridges: pretty bad shape.
Richmond-region bridges: pretty bad shape.

by James A. Bacon

Virginia supposedly prioritizes road and highway maintenance over new construction but the condition of the state’s bridges doesn’t appear to reflect it. According to a new report by Transportation for America, 9.1% of the bridges in the Old Dominion were rated “structurally deficient” in 2013. That wasn’t as bad as the worst offender, Pennsylvania, where 24.5% of the bridges are deficient, but it falls considerably short of Florida and Nevada, whose bridges are in the best condition nationally, with only 2.2% deficient.

Northern Virginia bridges
Northern Virginia bridges. (Click for larger image.)

When ranked by the average daily traffic on those deficient bridges, Virginia does even worse, scoring 8th in the country — 7.4 million riders cross bad bridges in the Old Dominion every day.

If there’s any consolation, Virginia did manage to whittle down the number of deficient bridges by 21 between 2011 and 2013 — to  1,251, an improvement of 1.7%.

Norfolk bridges. (Click for larger image.)
Norfolk bridges. (Click for larger image.)

What’s worrisome is that bridge repair is stalling — the nation repaired one-third the number of bridges over the past four years that it did between 1992 and 1996. Meanwhile, a big chunk of the nation’s transportation infrastructure is reaching its average designed lifespan. The average bridge is designed to last 50 years. The average bridge age today is 43 years. The average age of structurally deficient bridges is 65 years. In a decade, states Transportation for America, one in four of the nation’s bridges will be 65 years or older. Making matters worse, Congress last year eliminated a dedicated fund for bridge repair, forcing bridge repair to compete with other transportation needs.

How about the bridges that you drive on? Check out Transportation for America’s cool interactive map. That’s where I captured the images for this blog post. What the map tells you, and these images can’t, is when a bridge was built, when it was last inspected, and what its ratings were for deck, superstructure and substructure.

Update: Under the new Six Year Improvement Program approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board Wednesday, Virginia will spent nearly $2.3 billion to upgrade bridges over the next six years, reports the Times-Dispatch. Said Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton: “There’s a large backlog of bridge maintenance projects that we’re now going to be able to get to.”

That raises a question. If there’s a large backlog of bridge maintenance projects, is VDOT living up to its statutory obligation to repair and maintain existing roads before building new ones?

Charlottesville bridges. (Click for larger image.)
Charlottesville bridges. (Click for larger image.)
Lynchburg bridges. (Click for larger image.)
Lynchburg bridges. (Click for larger image.)
Roanoke bridges. (Click for larger image.)
Roanoke bridges. (Click for larger image.)

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5 responses to “Bad Bridges”

  1. larryg Avatar

    “structurally deficient” does not mean dangerous to the point that it’s unsafe to use.

    It basically means the bridge does not meet modern standards.

    But VDOT has a comprehensive inspection program and they will reduce the load rating on bridges as well as close them outright if they feel they are truly unsafe.

    but this is an example of how money is spent on road, bridges that have “already been paid for”. No road, or bridge or tunnel is “paid for” in the initial construction. There are longer term, continuing costs – operations (like inspections), maintenance (like knocking rust off and re-painting), and ultimately replacement.

    a good question for people is – how much money does your county collect in gasoline tax revenues – AND how much money does VDOT spent to maintain, operate and replace your bridges?

    If you do not know this – shame on you ! how can you advocate for “more” if you don’t know these basics?


  2. Breckinridge Avatar

    No county collects a dime in gasoline tax revenue — it is a state tax. I guess you could break down the state collections by locality. But focusing on localities (or even regions) is a classic red herring in that few people travel — and certainly almost no major economic activity — depends on the transportation network in one locality. Or one region. A major manufacturer on the Peninsula will depend on a supply chain reaching all across the state. That “his is bigger than yours” thinking is a favorite technique of political demagogues. I know far more than the basics about the larger picture and have long been an advocate for “more.” We are getting more and now the trick is to use it well.

    But I agree, lots of bridges are rated structurally deficient that are still quite safe and will stay safe for a long, long time. But bridges do wear out and eventually need to be replaced — have you done any driving in downtown Richmond on 95 lately?

  3. larryg Avatar

    but they do. They get it back in maintenance, operations, improvements and new projects. That’s a fact.

    It’s no more a ‘red herring” than it is in 46 other states where the localities are directly financially responsible for their local, non-state roads – and this leaves their gas tax to be dedicate to state-level roads.

    In thos 46 other states, the DOT does NOT plow subdivisions, pull their ditches, or fill their potholes. Either the county does or the HOA does.
    In Va, people who live in apartments pay to play other people’s subdivision roads.

    I’m NOT advocating balkanization of Va but I AM pointing out that no region of Va is seriously going to get continuously more than another region just “because”. And RoVa, most of the state – actually generates pitiful gas tax revenues, less people who drive shorter distances, etc.

    The question about HRTW is where should the money come from to build their tunnels. That question is never answere in any kind of realistic way.

    they just want the state to do it – and there are simply not enough state revenues to do it without a major tax increase across the state – and even then the state just simply does not have the bond capacity to borrow the money. So the question remains – how will you fund the tunnels?

    If you don’t like my answer, then give me yours – a realistic one that is based on fiscal realities.

    Many of these “deficient” bridges – you might note are NOT major state-level primary or interstate bridges. They are LOCAL bridges, 600 series road bridges an in 46 other states, these bridges often require local county money at least in part and in Va – if the county has a deficient bridge, they DO have an annual allocation of gas tax revenues to fix it but most counties put the money where the “growth” is or to support economic development with the idea that “it’s a “core” state responsibility”. That “core” idea is only true in 4 states in the country- Va, NC, Texas, and Alaska.

    Many of the other 46 actually have a separate assessment for local roads.
    I would assert that Va’s policy on roads – actually drives sprawl… it encourages people to commute longer distances and they move into a “better” house in a cul-de-saced subdivision whose roads are VDOT-maintained.

  4. […] bridges. Roughly one in eleven bridges in the state is rated “structurally deficient.” (See “Bad Bridges” for details). VDOT also will dedicate 25% of its formula revenues to repairing deteriorating […]

  5. […] bridges. Roughly one in eleven bridges in the state is rated “structurally deficient.” (See “Bad Bridges” for details). VDOT also will dedicate 25% of its formula revenues to repairing deteriorating […]

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