“There are approximately 100,000 structural — structurally deficient bridges in America that could crumble or collapse at any moment.”

— Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), remarks to reporters, Nov. 16

President Biden’s signing of the infrastructure bill will unleash $550 billion in new spending over the next five years. Near the top of the list for repair are bridges, as about 42 percent are at least half a century old.

But we were struck by Jeffries’s comment that about 100,000 bridges were “structurally deficient” — which he said meant that they “could crumble or collapse at any moment.”

Given there are more than 600,000 bridges in the country, this number seemed rather high. And it was.

The Facts

Notice that the lawmaker used a specific term — “structurally deficient.” Under definitions crafted by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), that means a bridge is in one of five categories of “structurally deficient” condition — poor, serious, critical, imminent failure or failed. Sometimes, all five categories are labeled as “poor,” though the last category essentially means it’s out of service and beyond repair. FHWA says that the common action for bridges in the “structurally deficient” range is “rehabilitation or replacement.”

We checked with three authoritative sources to see how many structurally deficient bridges they count:

In other words, Jefferies said the United States has about 100,000 structurally deficient bridges, but in all three cases the estimate is less than half that figure. ARTBA’s report even shows that the situation has improved, with more than 1,100 fewer bridges listed as structurally deficient in 2020 than 2019.

Moreover, Jefferies engaged in rhetorical overkill by claiming that “structurally deficient” meant the bridges “could crumble or collapse at any moment.”

In reality, ARTBA shows only 440 bridges listed in the “imminent failure” category. Under FHWA’s definition, that generally means the bridge is already closed: “Major deterioration or section loss present in critical structural components, or obvious vertical or horizontal movement affecting structure stability. Bridge is closed to traffic, but corrective action may put it back in light service.”

There are 1,668 bridges listed in critical condition. Again, FHWA’s definition suggests the bridge may be closed: “Advanced deterioration of primary structural elements. Fatigue cracks in steel or shear cracks in concrete may be present, or scour may have removed substructure support. Unless closely monitored, the bridge may have to be closed until corrective action is taken.”

Finally, there are 967 bridges that are in failed condition and cannot be repaired.

So, there are maybe 3,000 bridges that are in really bad shape and potentially close to collapse. But note that they are often closed because of their condition — and one-third have already been closed.

“There are several numeric rankings under the structurally deficient category. So one cannot say that all bridges classified as ‘structurally deficient’ could collapse at any moment,” said John Schneidawind, ARTBA’s spokesman. “The best number to use for structurally deficient bridges is 45,000, as that is the number that encompasses all five categories — zero to 4.”

He noted: “State DOT departments regularly inspect bridges for any defects.”

Christiana Stephenson, communications director at the House Democratic Caucus, which Jefferies chairs, defended his comment by noting that 112,797 bridges were listed by ARTBA in another category — “fair condition.” According to FHWA, that means “all primary structural elements are sound but may have some minor section loss, cracking, spalling, or scour.”

That doesn’t sound like imminent collapse to us. Under FHWA terminology, bridges in this category would be handled with “condition-based maintenance.”

“Any number of structurally deficient bridges under any definition poses a risk to the everyday Americans who travel these crossings to get to work, bring their kids to school and make ends meet,” Stephenson said. “This is akin to debating whether a burning building is a three- or four-alarm fire before extinguishing it. According to any of the sources you point to below, our nation’s bridges and critical infrastructure are in dire need of the historic investment signed into law this week.”

She added: “No person applies this specific terminology when they are driving over clearly decrepit bridges and roads, costing Americans time, money and fuel while undermining their safety.”

The Pinocchio Test

We fail to understand why politicians have trouble admitting error. Jefferies got a bit overenthusiastic about the infrastructure bill and doubled the number of structurally deficient bridges. He then added some rhetorical overkill. Contrary to Jeffries’s suggestion that 100,000 bridges are close to collapse, the real number is under 3,000.

There’s no question that a significant percentage of bridges — about 7.5 percent — need immediate work and the infrastructure bill will go a long way in dealing with the problem. But there’s no reason to hype the figures. Doubling the number of bridges was probably worthy of Two Pinocchios, but larding on the idea that all were about to collapse gets Jefferies to Three.

Three Pinocchios

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