The bridge issue
The Maine Legislature wrapped up the session without sending a bond to voters, and transportation watchers are concerned about the $34 million per year void that creates in the state’s bridge program which has struggled to gain ground after decades of under funding.
By Kathryn Buxton
When the Maine Legislature adjourned this July, it did so without voting to send a transportation bond to voters. That worried many in the transportation industry for a variety of reasons, including the impact it would have on the state’s efforts to address its backlog of structurally deficient bridges. If the legislature does not pass a bond, it will put a $30 million hole in MaineDOT’s bridge program over the next two years. The department has identified 58 bridge projects in 15 counties that are at risk of delay.
“This is not a good time to put Maine’s bridge program on hold,” said Tom Gorrill, president of the Maine Better Transportation Association (MBTA) that for the past 74 years has advocated for sound investment in the state’s transportation infrastructure. “MaineDOT was counting on that bond for the current work plan and bridge projects will be put on hold if there is no bond.”
The lack of a bond comes at a time when bridges and bridge safety have been in the news. On May 23, a section of the I-5 bridge in Mount Vernon, Washington fell into the Skagit River. The bridge was built in 1955 and was on an important north-south corridor that leads to the border with Canada. On a typical day it carried 71,000 vehicles, and on that day, one of those vehicles was an over height truck that struck the bridge. That, investigators believe, caused the collapse. Fortunately, no one was killed. Still, it was a timely reminder that states, including Maine, cannot afford to be complacent about aging bridges.
Not keeping pace
The bridge safety issue has stayed in the forefront of the news since the I-5 bridge collapse, thanks in part to The Fix We’re In For 2013, a Transportation for America report ranking the condition of the nation’s 70,000 bridges. In that report, Maine’s bridges were found to be ninth worst in the nation, a decline since the last time the report was issued in 2011. At that time, Maine’s bridges were ranked 12th worst.
“This report really highlights the great effort that has gone into addressing a problem that has grown to be a national crisis,” said MBTA Executive Director Maria Fuentes. “We’ve made impressive gains here in Maine, but we have been outpaced by other states with more resources. Still, the fact that there are still so many deficient bridges remaining – everywhere, not just in Maine – means we have more work to do.”
Keeping the state’s bridges safe has required heightened diligence in recent years, as the inventory of aging bridges has strained MaineDOT resources. A large proportion of Maine’s bridges were originally built during the mid-20th century and as they reached and, in some cases, surpassed their expected lifespans during the past 10 years, the state’s inventory of deficient bridges outpaced available funding. In 2007, Maine had 356 bridges classified by the Federal Highway Administration as structurally deficient – about 15 percent of the state’s total inventory of bridges. By 2008, that number had grown to 386.
A turning point occurred in August 2007 when the I-35W bridge collapsed in Minnesota, killing 13 people. That event grabbed headlines and sparked a nationwide effort to make bridges a priority. In Maine, Governor John Baldacci’s office ordered a task force to study the problem and make recommendations. The report that came out of that effort, Keeping Our Bridges Safe, found that Maine’s bridges were safe, but in decline and in need of an additional $50-60 million in annual funding. In 2008, the Maine Legislature responded to the crisis by establishing the TransCap bond fund and dedicating $160 million in one-time funding to fix Maine’s bridges over four years. TransCap was the result of L.D. 1790: An Act to Secure Maine’s Transportation Future, a bill envisioned as a building block for sustainable road and bridge funding, and it did help put the state on a path toward a solution.
Today, thanks to the TransCap fund and to additional bridge funding from the federal government’s economic recovery effort following the recession, the state’s inventory of deficient bridges has once again been reduced to 2007 levels and stands at 356. Maine has been able to reduce its inventory of deficient bridges, including rehabilitating or replacing several “extraordinary bridges” – big ticket bridges such as the Veterans Bridge in Portland, Knickerbocker Bridge in Boothbay, Martin’s Point Bridge connecting Falmouth and Portland and Memorial Bridge over the Piscataqua River at Kittery and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. If the legislature is able to pass a transportation bond similar to the $100-plus million bond proposals put forward by Governor LePage and Transportation Committee Chair Ed Mazurek at the start of the legislative session, the annual bridge funding deficit will narrow to an estimated $19 million a year over the next three years. If a bond is not passed, that deficit will increase to $34 million a year.
“Everyone can see we’ve made progress in making our bridges safer, but 356 bridges are still at risk,” said MBTA’s Gorrill. “Without that bond funding, Maine’s bridge program will lose ground.”
Many transportation advocates would like to see leaders in Washington and Augusta look beyond the next few years to find a sustainable, long-term funding source to replace gas tax revenues that have continued to decline due to gains in fuel efficiency.
“The truth is, we still don’t have the funds to do what we need to do. We have a lot of bridges yet to fix, including ‘gateway’ bridges like the Sarah Long Bridge in Kittery and the International Bridge at Madawaska,” said MBTA’s Fuentes. “That TransCap and federal recovery money was important, but that money is gone. A bond will help cover part of the gap, but we also need to be thinking about a more lasting solution.”
Burden of public safety
The public rarely thinks about the safety of their bridges until one falls down or is shut down – case in point was the temporary closing of the Sarah Long Bridge connecting Kittery with Portsmouth, New Hampshire, earlier this year, after a tug boat hit it, or the I-5 bridge collapse in May. The news captures headlines for a few days and then quiets down.
Behind the scenes, bridge safety is a constant concern for MaineDOT engineers. They are all too aware of the challenges of coaxing ever more years of service out of bridges that were built for another time when traffic levels were lower and vehicle weights were lighter. Chip Getchell, director of MaineDOT’s work plan division, described how, after the 2007 Minnesota bridge tragedy, the department took the findings of Keep Our Bridges Safe to heart and continue to keep public safety at the forefront. Engineers inspect the state’s fracture critical bridges every year. That is twice as often as the FHWA recommends, including rigorous, hands-on fracture critical inspections of the trusses on a 24-month rotating basis.
MaineDOT also has included bridges in the department’s campaign to introduce performance measures to its planning process. And when a critical event takes place, such as the May bridge collapse in Washington state, the department wastes no time to get out in the field, perform on-the-spot inspections and evaluate the risks.
At the request of MaineDOT Commissioner David Bernhardt, the department completed a risk assessment of Maine’s remaining steel truss bridges within 30 days of the I-5 bridge collapse in May. When it is necessary, the MaineDOT has been clear that it will not hesitate to post or close a bridge it believes to be unsafe. Currently, there are 55 bridges in Maine that have been either closed or posted with weight limits.
“Out of all of this, I hope that the message comes through that Maine’s bridges are safe,” said Getchell.
Sharing the burden
Peter Krakoff, an engineer with CPM Constructors, served on the 2007 task force that produced the Keeping Our Bridges Safe report, and he is not optimistic about the prospects for more funding to fix bridges. The problem, as he sees it, is one of funding priorities and sometimes unrealistic expectations from the public.
“If you look at what we invest in our infrastructure, it is very small compared to other countries,” said Krakoff. “We spend about three to four percent of our gross national product. In Europe they spend five percent. In India, it’s six or seven percent. In China, it’s seven or eight percent.”
Krakoff said the message is simple: “We are underfunded.” Like others, he credits MaineDOT for doing the best it can with the funding available, setting clear priorities, tackling the worst, highest traffic bridges first and squeezing as many years of service as possible out of each bridge.
“They’re doing the best they can to increase the lifespan of bridges because that means fewer bridges to replace. If you can get another 20 years out of a bridge, you’re doing a good job.”
Still, he fears that one upshot of the funding crunch will be that rural towns will suffer a disproportionate burden as a greater proportion of Maine’s limited resources go to more populous communities. Krakoff worries about the inequities and points out that safe bridges are just as critical, if not more so, to the businesses and residents of those towns. Communities frequently request enhancements on bridge projects that can strain budgets, and Krakoff believes that as long as elected officials in Augusta and Washington continue to avoid addressing a funding solution, communities will have to step up to fill the gap for any kind of infrastructure extras to bridges that are anything other than “utilitarian or basic.”
Krakoff said, it’s about fairness and making a limited transportation budget go as far as possible.
“Yes, we all benefit from a good-looking bridge, but the question is ‘Can we afford it?’” said Krakoff. “If we want enhancements for our town, our town should be paying something, as well.”