WASHINGTON -- Many of the nation's largest and most seriously deficient bridges aren't getting fixed because a federal program funding bridge repairs is unfocused and lacks sufficient standards, congressional investigators say.
The Highway Bridge Program that provided more than $4 billion to states last year has become so broad that "nearly any bridge" is potentially eligible for federal aid, according to a draft of a Government Accountability Office report being released Wednesday.
The number of structurally deficient bridges in the U.S. decreased 22 percent between 1998 and 2007 -- from 93,118 to 73,519. But most improvements have been to locally owned and rural bridges rather than the largest bridges in urban areas that carry the most people and goods, the report said.
"The federal interest in bridges lacks focus, there are no effective measures of program performance, and the impact of the increasing federal investment in bridges is unclear," the report says.
The Federal Highway Administration, which administers the bridge program, said in a statement that the agency has "long cautioned that Congress' insistence on establishing over 100 federal transportation programs presents states with needless overlaps, conflicting guidance and cumbersome process requirements. That is why we have called on Congress to significantly reduce the number of federal programs so states can be provided with clearer direction on how to ensure that crucial infrastructure needs are fully met."
The GAO report is being released a little over a year after the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis brought national attention to the issue of bridge safety. In July, the House passed a bill that would add $1 billion to the bridge program, but the Senate hasn't yet acted.
Katherine Siggerud, GAO's managing director for infrastructure issues and author of the report, said in testimony prepared for a hearing Wednesday by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that often "the largest and most critical bridges ... are too expensive to be funded."
That's the case with the Pulaski Skyway -- a 3.5 mile bridge that connects New York and northern New Jersey that's crossed by 85,000 to 95,000 people a day. The bridge, over 75 years old, has a zero sufficiency rating -- the lowest possible rating on a scale of zero to 100 under the bridge program, Kris Kolluri, New Jersey's transportation commissioner, said in an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press.
Sufficiency ratings are based on a variety of factors determining a bridge's suitability for its current use, but do not necessarily mean the bridge is in danger of collapse.
The Pulaski Skyway hasn't been repaired because the project would cost over $1 billion. Faced with how to divvy up the several hundred million dollars in federal bridge funds that New Jersey receives annually, the state decided instead to spread the money among its 2,500 bridges, Kolluri said.
"We've decided to make sure every bridge gets a little bit so none is left behind, and every year more bridges graduate to the structurally deficient list," he said.
Pete Rahn, Missouri's transportation director and president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, called the GAO review superficial.
"If the federal government was actually providing enough money to fix bridges, then a criticism like this would be justified, but the fact of the matter is there just isn't enough money to fix bridges," Rahn told the AP. "The combination of state and federal (funding) is just not cutting it -- it's just not enough to keep up with our baby boomer bridges."
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who requested the study, said it underscores the need to reform the bridge program.
"Before we use tax dollars for federal programs, we should know exactly how they are going to be used," Coleman said. "Currently, under the Highway Bridge Program, federal funding can be used for just about anything that a car drives on. It is imperative that we take a step back and develop targeted goals for the rehabilitation of bridges."