Bridges are so integral to U.S. infrastructure and commonplace in our lives that we only notice them when something is wrong. Across the U.S., almost 10 percent of the bridges linking communities are structurally deficient. The collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania last month should bring even more attention to the dangers of failing to maintain America’s infrastructure. On top of the potential fatal risks to commuters, the costs of bridge collapses can have vast economic consequences for local communities.
The Fern Hollow Bridge was a 52-year-old bridge that had consistently been rated in poor condition since 2011. Before its collapse, repairs were estimated at $1.5 million for the 1970s-era bridge, but now the total cost of replacing the bridge may be as high as $25 million. This stark difference in costs to repair versus replace a bridge is hardly just a Pittsburgh problem and is one reason policymakers must engage with infrastructure sooner rather than later.
There are still costs that accompany any bridge repair project. Interrupting and diverting traffic and contributing to congestion can cause many public officials pause as to whether repairing a bridge is worthwhile. The Hernando DeSoto Bridge connecting Arkansas and Tennessee is currently undergoing a major repair, and the 84-minute detour route costs $2.4 million per day for the trucking industry due to the time delay.
While the Fern Hollow Bridge was mainly used by commuters, this and other bridge failures can sever crucial corridors for trade.
The collapse of a portion of I-35W in Minneapolis in 2007 cost the state of Minnesota $17 million during that calendar year and an additional $43 million in 2008 in economic gain due to products not being able to be shipped efficiently. That bridge handled 140,000 vehicles per day and the cost to replace the bridge totaled $234 million. Repairing a high-volume bridge, however, also carries with it economic costs. Traffic congestion in 2019 on Interstate highways alone cost the U.S. economy $15 billion.
In Seattle in 2013, the Skagit River Bridge portion of I-5 collapsed due to a portion of an oversized load on a semi-truck colliding with the functionally-obsolete truss-work of the bridge. The state of Washington lost at least $47 million in economic output, local jobs, and tax revenue due to the bridge’s collapse. The total cost of replacing the Skagit River Bridge was $17.8 million.
The cost to replace a bridge after it has collapsed is significantly more expensive than repair and maintenance work. Currently, there are 43,578 structurally deficient bridges across the U.S. that are in poor condition. More specifically, 30 percent of Interstate bridges need to be either replaced or repaired. Bridge collapses disrupt both the transportation of finished goods to distributors and raw materials to manufacturers and ultimately lead to less tax revenue due to business slowdowns. Bridges are far too essential to communities and state economies to be allowed to deteriorate further.
Ultimately, some state governments might choose to delay repairs to bridges due to not wanting to contribute to short-term economic losses from traffic congestion and reduced speed limits. However, if state and federal leaders delay repairs today due to short-term economic costs, the future costs from a bridge collapse will be felt from local communities up to the state government.
The Fern Hollow Bridge collapse should be an early warning sign that continuing to delay bridge repairs will only lead to elevated costs in the future. Currently, the investigation into the bridge collapse is ongoing and it’s not clear whether or what repairs to the bridge were made in recent years. However, the costs now accrued by the City of Pittsburgh and the federal government due to the bridge’s collapse were largely preventable.
America’s bridges need priority attention and real maintenance investment to prevent disasters like what happened in Pittsburgh from becoming commonplace. If politicians and authorities fail to heed these warnings, the costs will add up in human lives, environmental damage, disaster and emergency services, construction costs, and most potently, trade and economic disruptions.
Written by Roy Mathews, Public Policy Associate
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.