Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Wednesday June 19th, 2013, 4:43pm

Report: 1 in 12 Illinois Bridges 'Structurally Deficient'

One in 12 bridges in Illinois is "structurally deficient," which is an increase from two years ago, according to a national report from Transportation for America released Wednesday.

Based on an analysis of the U.S. Department on Transportation's National Bridge Inventory data, the report found that nearly 9 percent of Illinois' bridges are structurally deficient, meaning they require significant repair, maintenance or replacement.

On a daily basis, there are more than 8 million trips taken across Illinois' deficient bridges, according to the report, "The Fix We’re In For 2013."

In general, bridges are designed to last 50 years before major fixes are needed. The average age of Illinois' bridges is 40. Nationally, the average age is 43.

In 10 years, 1 in 4 bridges in the country will be older than 65, which is the average age of structurally deficient bridges, according to the report.

"As more bridges reach the end of their life span, we face a growing liability in Illinois and nationally," said Brian Imus, Illinois PIRG's  state director. "Delays in maintenance increase safety risks and ultimately costs taxpayers. The safest approach we can take to Illinois’ infrastructure is to protect the investments we’ve made with needed upgrades."

Specifically, 2,311 Illinois bridges were rated deficient, which is up from 2,239 in 2011 when Transportation for America issued its last report on bridge conditions. The state has a total of 26,514 bridges.

Illinois was one of 16 states to see an uptick in subpar bridges over a two-year period.

The report ranked Illinois 35th nationally for its overall bridge conditions. (The worst ranking is one, while 51 is the best). Pennsylvania came in the worst with 24.5 percent of its bridges rated structurally deficient. Florida was ranked the best with just 2.2 percent of its bridges in the deficient category.

On a national level, 67,000 bridges, or one in nine, are structurally deficient. And every day, about 260 million trips are taken across them, the report noted.

Without investment, these bridges have a likelihood of being closed and posted for weight limits, among other problems, said James Corless, director of Transportation for America.

Structurally deficient does not necessarily mean unsafe, the report noted. But it is still something to be worried about, Corless stressed while on a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

"Laid end-to-end, those deficient bridges would span from Washington, D.C. to Denver, Colorado, or actually from Mexico all the way to Canada at the widest part of the U.S.," he said. "That is no small problem."

While the number of deficient bridges has gotten slightly better since Transportation For America's last report, progress has seriously slowed over time, Corless said.

Transportation agencies would need $76 billion to get the current backlog of inadequate bridges up to standards, according to estimates from the Federal Highway Administration.

But where that money will come from to pay for bridge fixes is not certain.

First, the federal gasoline tax, which is 18 cents a gallon, has been the traditional source of funding for the country's transportation program, Corless explained. And the tax has not been raised since 1993, he added.

As driving starts to decline and cars become more fuel efficient, less money is trickling into the Federal Highway Trust Fund, a main source of funding to fix bridges. States also have their own gasoline taxes, and they are experiencing similar issues, Corless noted.

And last year, Congress did away with a specific fund for fixing structurally deficient bridges as part of the renewal of the federal transportation program, MAP-21. Funding to help repair locally-owned bridges was also slashed significantly.

In Illinois, that means fixes for deficient bridges are in competition with other transportation projects in the cash-strapped state.

“The state of our nation’s bridges is indicative of inadequate investment overall in our transportation infrastructure,” said Peter Skosey, vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council. “It’s clear that we’ve run out of money to cover even critical basic maintenance, and it’s long past time we identified new dedicated revenues to support a comprehensive national surface transportation program.”

The collapse of Washington's Interstate 5 bridge into the Skagit River in May is a recent example of the need for transportation infrastructure investments. The bridge was not structurally deficient, but it was considered “fracture critical,” meaning it lacked redundant supporting elements, according to the report.

The bridge reopened today with a temporary span, Washington State Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson told reporters Wednesday.

“It’s always cheaper to do the maintenance of our bridges up front or replace them when necessary rather than having to deal with an emergency such as this," Peterson said. "The federal funding obviously will come into play for the emergency funding relief, but we at the state level have to have the money to upfront all these costs.”

At the local level, the Transportation for Illinois Coalition is working to help ramp up state funding for transportation and bridges in the Prairie State. But Jennifer Morrison, the coalition's managing director, added that Illinois cannot solve its insufficient bridge problem by itself.

“We need a fully-funded, robust, and multi-year replacement to take over when the federal transportation program, MAP-21, expires next year," she said. "A strong federal commitment can help local municipalities and states better allocate resources so that we can fix the bridges we have.”

Corless said Congress has debated whether the federal government should play a role in transportation infrastructure investment, and he expects the topic will come up again in the future.

"I hope that this report, and this topic and what happened in Washington state, which could happen to other places, is proof enough that there really is a federal interest in investing in our infrastructure," he said.

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