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Groups representing American road builders, civil engineers support new Senate bridge bill

AS REPORTED BY KIM RILEY FOR TRANSPORTATION TODAY

Just-introduced legislation from U.S. Senate Democrats that would pour $75 billion over a decade into a new competitive grant program for repairing the nation’s structurally shoddy bridges has received overwhelming support even before being assigned a bill number.

The Bridge Investment Act, introduced Jan. 4 by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), would authorize much-needed resources to improve the safety and performance of America’s either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), which says the designation applies to 23 percent of the U.S. bridge network.

Yet travel over such bridges continues.

“We have significant and well-documented unmet needs across all modes of transportation. Many of these bottlenecks and challenges occur on our nation’s major freight routes, having a significant impact on our economy and quality of life,” Alison Premo Black, senior vice president and chief economist at ARTBA, told Transportation Today.

In fact, every day in the United States there are a total of more than 1.15 billion crossings by freight trucks, ambulances, commuters, school buses and others traveling over structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges, according to the ARTBA National Bridge Inventory. And there are 95 million-plus crossings on bridges where inspectors have deemed the deck condition to be poor, serious, critical or approaching imminent failure, the ARTBA inventory reports.

“Addressing the condition of our nation’s bridges is an important step to improving the overall performance of our nation’s infrastructure network,” said Black, who is also deputy director of the ARTBA Contractors Division.

ARTBA is among several national organizations that have sent letters supporting the Bridge Investment Act to Sen. Brown, ranking Democrat on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. Sen. Wyden is the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee and Sen. Whitehouse is a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. All three committees represent key players involved in developing President Donald Trump’s infrastructure package, which has called for $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, not including bridge repair.

The senators said the Bridge Investment Act also would ensure that a bipartisan infrastructure package could address the national bridge repair backlog if it is added to such a package. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates the United States has a $123 billion bridge repair backlog, including $17 billion in needed improvements to rural and local bridges.

The bill’s proposed $75 billion of federal funding “would go a long way to lessening the $123 billion backlog, as it would be coupled with state and local investments to yield up to $150 billion worth of projects,” James Pajk, Advocacy Captain at the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), told Transportation Today.

ASCE also sent Sen. Brown a letter supporting the Bridge Investment Act noting that it would address the needs of the country’s bridges and make the nation stronger and safer. ASCE had graded U.S. bridges a C+ in its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card and noted many were nearing the end of their design life.

“Simply put, we are putting our economy and safety in serious risk,” wrote Kristina L. Swallow, the 2018 president of ASCE, in the Nov. 1, 2017 letter to Brown.

While the number of structurally deficient bridges across the country has steadily been decreasing over the last decade, Pajk added: “Continuing this trend is important to our safety and the strength of our economy. One way that we can continue to improve our bridges is through the Bridge Investment Act.”

In addition to the ARTBA and ASCE letters of support, Sen. Brown also received support letters from the International Union of Operating Engineers, the National League of Cities, North America’s Building Trades Union, the Associated General Contractors of America, and the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO.

In a one-page summary of the bill released Dec. 4, the senators said the bill would create a competitive grant program that invests $75 billion over 10 years in bridge repair projects. These funds would help leverage additional investment from state and local entities, they said.

And along with proposing significant investments in bridge repair projects — which the bill’s sponsoring senators said are not currently prioritized under existing federal highway grant programs — the Bridge Investment Act also would:

  • Help repair bridges of any size in urban and rural areas;
  • Require all projects to use American-made steel and iron for bridge projects funded by the bill;
  • Create an evaluation process for proposed projects to ensure federal funding is fairly and efficiently allocated; and
  • Streamline the project application process for a variety of entities allowed to seek grants by bundling medium and small projects into one application.

“The letter we did supporting the bill … has a lot of the specifics about some of the challenges we are facing,” ARTBA’s Black wrote in an email on Friday. “But beyond the condition, it gets to the performance of the system.

“Transportation is so important because it has an impact on everyone’s daily life, from safety to mobility and our economy,” Black wrote.

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