Chicago's Western Avenue Overpass, which crosses busy Belmont and Clybourn avenues on the city's Northwest Side, shares one crucial aspect with 2,238 other bridges in urban, suburban, and rural communities across the state: federal regulators consider it "structurally deficient," meaning at least one key component of the bridge is rated in poor shape or worse. You can see this easily at Western and Belmont. In many places, the overpass' concrete has chipped away, exposing its internal rebar to the elements.
In all, according to "The Fix We're In For: The State of Illinois' Bridges," a new report compiled by the non-profit Transportation for America, one out of every 12 bridges in the state is structurally deficient. There are at least 10 structurally deficient bridges in Illinois with average daily traffic counts of 64,500 or higher; the highest-volume bridge in poor shape, with 162,400 drivers crossing it each day, is part of I-290, in DuPage County. In Wabash County, nearly 22 percent of all highway bridges have slipped into the structurally deficient category, the highest level in the state. Brian Imus, the director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, talked about the report -- and the problem -- at a press conference this morning. Here's a clip of Imus:
The report says that Illinois ranks 35th worst nationally in terms of its bridges' overall condition (though on other measures, like bridges' average age and the percentage of federal funds the state spent on bridge repair in 2008, Illinois is slightly ahead of the national average). But Illinois continues to use a disproportionate amount of its federal transportation dollars on new transportation capacity rather than upkeep of existing infrastructure. The Environmental Law and Policy Center's Kevin Brubaker said the way the federal government allocates transportation dollars is based on the number of highway miles in a state and the number of existing structurally deficient bridges there are, a structure that incentivizes new construction over upkeep. "That's what gets you more money," Brubaker said.
Transportation for America's report recommends that Congress provide states with more resources to repair and rebuild bridges, and ensure that funds sent to the states for such projects actually flow for their intended use. Some of those questions presumably will get addressed in the federal transportation bill federal legislators are likely to debate this year. While infrastructure is seemingly one of the things that Democrats and Republicans could agree to spend money on, the politics of the federal budget complicates that equation -- there are still questions about how the bill will be paid for and what priorities it will set. "I had the chief of staff of a local congressman say to me it's going to take another bridge collapse," to get to a political breakthrough on the issue, Kathleen Woodruff Transportation for America's Illinois organizer, told Progress Illinois today.