Decaying D.C. bridge reflects state of thousands of such structures nationwide

(Nikki Kahn/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - The aging Frederick Douglass bridge, shown here in December, is an example of the national problem of poor maintenance and failing infrastructure. The country faces an infrastructure crisis as cities and states deal with rising costs and declining budgets.

(Nikki Kahn/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - The aging Frederick Douglass bridge, shown here in December, is an example of the national problem of poor maintenance and failing infrastructure. The country faces an infrastructure crisis as cities and states deal with rising costs and declining budgets.

A dozen blocks from the dome of the U.S. Capitol, a bridge rots as 70,000 drivers roar across it each day.

Now and then, a chunk of concrete shakes loose from the bridge’s underside and plops into the river, but mostly it is quiet corrosion that has eaten holes through the thick steel beams that were placed six decades ago. Most are the size of a quarter or no bigger than a dollar bill, but one girder looks like something that has been gnawed on by rats, so riddled with gaping holes that no wise person would dare stand on it.


Rebuilding bridges in the District
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Rebuilding bridges in the District

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There is no danger that the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge will collapse into the Anacostia River, District engineers say, but it is falling apart faster than repairs can be made.

It needs to be replaced, at a cost of almost $661 million in a project with an overall price tag of $906 million. Although it holds distinction as the bridge-gone-bad that is closest to the halls of Congress, lawmakers know they have bridges that are as bad or worse in their home states.

America’s bridges are falling down piece by piece, rust sprinkling like a summer shower from corrosion too intense to be covered by a fresh coat of paint. Concrete breaking away in chips and chunks.

No one is at risk. Not yet. And officials say they will shut down any bridge well before it becomes a danger.

“If any bridge is unsafe, we immediately take it out of service,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “However, it’s no secret that many aging bridges across the country are in need of repair or replacement, and there simply isn’t enough money in Washington to fund them all.”

Bridges have a life span, a limit to how long they can bear the weight and weather of daily stress. Then they need to be replaced. Generally they are built to stand for 50 years; the average bridge in the United States is 43.

That puts many of the nation’s 600,000 bridges at the end of their lives, with 70,000 of them officially judged structurally deficient last year. Pennsylvania leads the nation, with 5,906 troubled bridges. Virginia has 1,267, Maryland has 359 and the District has 30.

Bridges are just a fraction of the vast infrastructure boom that followed World War II and limped creaking and groaning into the 21st century.

Water systems need a $335 billion fix, and sewers $300 billion more, according to a series of reports by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The electrical grid requires investment of $107 billion by 2020. Airports need $114 billion over the same period. About $30 billion should be pumped into U.S. ports in the next eight years if they are to compete in global markets. Close to $40 billion is for a new aviation control system.

“Reliable, modern infrastructure isn’t a luxury,” said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the Obama administration’s nominee for secretary of state, who serves on two key Senate committees that deal with infrastructure issues. “It’s the lifeblood of our economy, the key to connecting our markets, moving products and people, generating and sustaining millions of jobs for American workers, to not wasting hundreds of thousands of hours and millions of gallons of gas on clogged highways.”

Perhaps the best bottom-line estimates came from an expert panel convened two years ago by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. To maintain infrastructure at current levels, $134 billion to $194 billion more needs to be spent each year through 2035. The federal government alone should come up with $2.3 trillion over that period.

The cost to keep bridges from getting worse is projected at a staggering $13 billion a year for the next 50 years, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. That number stands starkly against overall federal spending for roads, bridges and transit systems, currently about $54 billion a year. In past years, Washington has provided about half of the money that states used to repair and replace bridges.

But there is a bigger number: $140 billion, what the association says it would cost to repair every deficient or obsolete bridge in the nation.

Structural deficiency doesn’t mean a bridge is on the verge of collapse, but it is like a car that has gone 500,000 miles — the need for repair is constant and evermore expensive.

When a bridge structure weakens, weight restrictions can put it off limits to truck traffic, emergency vehicles and even school buses. Rerouting traffic causes delays and congestion, burns more gasoline and ultimately bumps up the cost of everything that arrives in the market or mall over the roadways.

As America’s insatiable desire for stuff has grown, truck travel nearly doubled over 20 years and is projected to double again by 2035. Obsolete bridges have become choke points, delaying trucks’ passage.

The cost of those delays is well known to trucking companies, but collectively it amounts to another multibillion-dollar figure that seems almost abstract to average consumers.

Unless, of course, they ponder why gas costs more at a downtown station than it does elsewhere or why doorstep package delivery costs more in congested areas. There are many reasons why the cost of living is higher in Washington than it is in lots of other places. One of them is that many trucking companies price their shipments into congested areas by Zip codes, because time is money and their trucks get stuck in traffic, too.

The wake-up call

The span in the deadliest bridge collapse in modern U.S. history was neither terribly old nor exceptionally decrepit, but more than five years later it haunts every state and federal official responsible for maintaining a bridge.

Thirteen people died and 145 were injured in 2007 when an eight-lane interstate highway bridge carrying Minneapolis evening rush-hour traffic collapsed into the Mississippi River.

The bridge repeatedly had been labeled structurally deficient by inspectors who cited significant corrosion and cracking on cross girders. But investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the bridge had been flawed from its beginning in the 1960s. Gusset plates used to join its steel beams weren’t muscular enough to bear the weight. That shortcoming had been exacerbated later when two inches of concrete added to the road surface increased the bridge weight by 20 percent.

Although inspectors weren’t blamed for the Minneapolis collapse, public fears were inflamed, and ensuring that the disaster never will be repeated has taken on the tone of a safety crusade.

A Pittsburgh bridge over the Monongahela River was closed for emergency repairs for three weeks in 2008. A month later, Interstate 95 through Philadelphia was closed for two days after a crack was discovered. Last year, the governors of Indiana and Kentucky agreed to shut down a six-lane bridge over the Ohio River.

When workers on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge said they thought they felt a shiver in one span on a windy night last August, Maryland officials shut the bridge immediately and waited for inspectors.

“We erred on the side of being very, very cautious today,” said Harold Bartlett, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority.

Plans, and costs

The Frederick Douglass is a classic baby-boom bridge, built in 1950, reconstructed twice and now ready to be retired. One end dumps traffic into the shadow of Nationals Park.

“This bridge demonstrates that the biggest threat to the service life of a bridge is corrosion,” says Ronaldo T. Nicholson, chief engineer for the D.C. Department of Transportation. “We’ve lost strength due to corrosion, and that takes away from the structural strength of a bridge. We never bring it back to its full strength as we go to retrofit plates where it has corroded out.”

The new bridge is to be built beside the old one, allowing traffic that includes 3,500 trucks a day to use the old bridge until the new one is open.

The new bridge will carry six lanes rather than four and will include space for pedestrians and cyclists. A traffic oval is planned on the downtown side and a traffic circle will help connect the network of streets and highways on the Anacostia side. Interchanges will link Interstate 295 and the Suitland Parkway. Other improvements, including an urban boulevard along South Capitol Street and developing the Anacostia waterfront and linking it to the Riverwalk Trail east of the river, swell the overall cost of the project to $906 million.

It might cost less.

The Washington Navy Yard is upriver from the bridge. Primarily for that reason, the Douglass bridge is a swing span that can open for larger ships. Since 2006, only three Navy ships and the tall ship Pride of Baltimore have needed access.

Nicholson says the city can save $140 million if it builds a fixed bridge, and the District is awaiting a reply from Navy officials as to whether the military needs a bridge that opens.

“We will see if there’s justification for that $140 million,” he said. “For the citizens of the District of Columbia to carry that burden, we think is just unfair.”

A scarcity of funds

When Nicholson is asked to name the biggest challenge to the bridge replacement project, there’s not a second of hesi­ta­tion.

“Funding,” he says, chuckling.

Any highway engineer in America would have the same response. Money is scarce and the cost of bridge-building has soared in the 21st century. When the price of oil jumped, so did the cost of asphalt. Steel and concrete have gotten more expensive, as has the cost of running heavy machinery fueled by diesel.

Putting together a funding package for any public project is like juggling bowling balls on a tightrope.

There is some federal money, but the era of austerity has curtailed that flow. A federal loan guarantee program known as TIFIA, for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, has helped states get loan money and to leverage financial support from the private sector.

Nicholson hopes to raise $300 million to $400 million of the construction cash through Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles, known as GARVEEs, a kind of bond in which money is secured in anticipation of federal aid grants.

“I’m impartial from where federal funding comes, but we will be seeking additional federal funding,” he says.

LaHood sees the growing need for local funding sources as federal money slows to a trickle of what it once was.

“By working together to combine tolls or other dedicated sources of local funding with grant and loan assistance from the state and federal government, communities are finding creative ways to move forward with critical new bridge projects across the country,” he says.

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