In Washington, the discussion about infrastructure improvement continues with no apparent agreement in sight. The major concern of most Americans involves the conditions of our roads and bridges, but President Biden’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan provides only $115 billion for those components of our infrastructure, while the $568 billion Republican counterproposal allocates $299 billion. The remainder of the expenditures in both plans would be for such things as broadband, airports, ports and waterways. In the case of Biden’s proposal, money is allocated for affordable houses and apartments, as well. In neither case will Congress even consider increasing the fuel tax which has been in place since 1993. As always, the question is where will the money come from?
A broader question is do we really need to spend that much money? Most experts have no doubt; and in fact, suggest that neither of the suggested amounts is nearly enough.
Ask the people of Minnesota. On August 1, 2007, about 6:00 p.m., during the evening rush hour, the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 and injuring 145. The National Transportation Safety Board cited a design flaw as the likely cause, suggesting that a “too thin gusset plate ripped along a line of rivets, and additional weight on the bridge at the time contributed to the catastrophic failure.” That bridge opened in 1967 – 54 years ago. Most of the interstate highway bridges are roughly the same age since they were part of the original 1956 interstate system construction. Bridge experts say that bridges built during that period were only expected to last about 50 years.
There have been continuing issues with bridges, although none quite as serious as the Minneapolis tragedy. Just last week, a potentially dangerous situation arose in Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis is one of the major crossroads of interstate commerce in the United States. Here, two of the busiest interstate highways intersect – the north-south I55 and the east-west I40. Over 100,000 vehicles daily pass through this intersection, mostly trucks. Both highways cross the Mississippi River at Memphis. Last week, a major crack was discovered in a support beam on the I40 bridge, causing traffic to come to an immediate halt as the bridge was closed. It will remain closed until engineers come up with a solution for repair. This bridge was opened almost 50 years ago, and locals refer to it as the “new bridge”.
Traffic has been diverted to the “old bridge”, the 72-year-old I55 span. This has funneled the daily 100,000 vehicles to a much older crossing which raises some obvious concerns. The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that Memphis is the world’s busiest cargo airport. To say that traffic is congested would be an understatement, and truck shipments are being delayed on a regular basis.
If that were not enough, the Coast Guard closed that section of the river to prevent possible collapses onto river vessels. For almost 4 days, 700 barges were docked on either side of the closed bridge. The American Waterways Operators said that the cost of idling a single tow for one day is about $10,000. Passage is now being allowed cautiously under one side of the bridge.
This is just another example of the condition of the roads and bridges in the country. Hopefully, Congress will realize there are few priorities that should be higher than this.