More than 26%, or one in four, of the nation’s bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. While some progress has been made in recent years to reduce the number of deficient and obsolete bridges in rural areas, the number in urban areas is rising. A $17 billion annual investment is needed to substantially improve current bridge conditions. Currently, only $10.5 billion is spent annually on the construction and maintenance of bridges.

According to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the average bridge in the US is now 43 years old. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, of the 600,905 bridges across the country as of December 2008, 72,868 (12.1%) were categorized as structurally deficient and 89,024 (14.8%) were categorized as functionally obsolete. From 2005–2008, the number of deficient (structurally deficient plus functionally obsolete) bridges in rural areas declined by 8,596. However, in urban areas during the same time frame, there was an increase of 2,817 deficient bridges.2 Put another way, in 2008 approximately one in four rural bridges were deficient, while one in three urban bridges were deficient. The urban impact is quite significant given the higher level of passenger and freight traffic.

"A structurally deficient bridge may be closed or restrict traffic in accordance with weight limits because of limited structural capacity. These bridges are not unsafe, but must post limits for speed and weight," the report says. "A functionally obsolete bridge has older design features and geometrics, and though not unsafe, cannot accommodate current traffic volumes, vehicle sizes, and weights. These restrictions not only contribute to traffic congestion, they also cause such major inconveniences as forcing emergency vehicles to take lengthy detours and lengthening the routes of school buses," says the report.

Simply maintaining the current overall level of bridge conditions—that is, not allowing the backlog of deficient bridges to grow—would require a combined investment from the public and private sectors of $650 billion over 50 years, according to AASHTO, for an average annual investment level of $13 billion. The cost of eliminating all existing bridge deficiencies as they arise over the next 50 years is estimated at $850 billion in 2006 dollars, equating to an average annual investment of $17 billion.

The investment gap is accelerating and the failure to invest adequately in the nation’s bridges will lead to increased congestion and delays for motorists, wasted fuel, the further deterioration of bridge conditions, and increased safety concerns, says ASCE. Once Congress works to address these problems in the 2009 authorization of the Surface Transportation Program, it should establish a goal that less than 15% of the nation’s bridges be classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete by 2013 and should provide the funding needed to accomplish that, the report notes.