The Bridge Problem and Improvements Needed in Federal Bridge Programs

Gao ID: 117494 February 10, 1982

The United States has a substantial bridge problem, because about 40 percent of its bridges are deficient. About half of these are structurally weak or unsound and must be closed, restricted to lighter vehicles, or immediately rehabilitated to prevent further deterioration and collapse. The remainder are functionally obsolete because they are too narrow, have inadequate underclearances, have insufficient load-carrying capacity, or are poorly aligned with the roadway and can no longer safely service traffic. About 3,700 bridges are closed to all traffic, and an estimated 150 bridges collapse each year. It would cost $41.1 billion to replace or rehabilitate the deficient bridges that have been identified. That cost estimate is expected to increase due to inflation and identification of further bridge deficiencies. Congress has established a program of periodic inspections to identify bridge conditions, maintenance needs, and safety problems. It has also established a program to provide Federal funds to States to help replace unsafe bridges. The Federal Government has become a major source of bridge replacement and rehabilitation funds. However, distribution of funds to States has been based on outdated and incomplete data. GAO has recommended that the Department of Transportation use the latest available needs data to annually allocate funds to States and allow States greater flexibility to address severe problems in bridges which are off the Federal-aid system. It also recommended that the agency should revise its eligibility criteria to concentrate on bridges in most need of replacement or rehabilitation. State and local governments have made substantial progress since the start of the National Bridge Inspection Program; however, full compliance with the established standards has not been achieved. Their compliance with the standards should be assessed, and a strategy should be developed to bring about full compliance. GAO also found incomplete, inaccurate, and unreliable inventory data; inconsistencies in bridge inspection and rating; and limited monitoring of the program. The National Park Service and the Forest Service also own bridges; however, they are not required to comply with the National bridge inspection standards and are not always in compliance with their own standards. The Federal Highway Administration should assess whether it should encourage State Governments to assume authority for local bridge inspections.

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