With unemployment, already a scourge, now creeping upwards
in some election swing states, politicians on both sides of the aisle owe some consideration to a project and website created by one New York lawyer.
Barry B. LePatner, founder of the construction company LePatner & Associates, has identified 7,980 places in America where workers are needed.
LePatner is the creator of SaveOurBridges.com
, an undertaking launched partly in response to the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis five years ago. That infrastructure failure led to the deaths of 13 people, commuters on the bridge during rush hour traffic one August evening in 2007. Another 145 people were injured. But the I-35W, before its collapse, was just one of thousands of bridges across the US that were -- and still are -- known to be in desperate need of repair.
The Federal Highway Association, or FHA, maintains a database of some 600,000 US bridges. Of these, LePatner has drawn special attention to only those 7,980 that are designated both "structurally deficient" and
"Fracture critical means they were designed in the '60s and '70s, so that if one member, one critical member fails, the entire bridge goes straight down. There's no redundancy to support the bridge," he recently told National Public Radio
Click on the image below to see where the most worn-out bridges are located:
Greater New York area residents will recognize the Brooklyn bridge, and many others, on the list. There are an average 160 bridges per state in need of shoring up. In many states, urban bridges -- the ones most heavily used -- pose the most urgent threats to public safety.
According to engineering experts like professor Bill Miller of Temple University, who also spoke to NPR, the standards for building and evaluating many of the country's bridges were simply not as developed when the interstate system was first constructed. That "includes the materials and the level of technology for making better steel and evaluating the designs by computer animation," Miller said. "Based on that," he explained, the inventory of bridges in the US needs to be "inspected much more often than it actually is. But, of course, these are constrained by the state budgets."
LePatner, who has written a book on this subject -- Too Big To Fall: America's Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward
(Foster Publishing) -- has an answer to that "no money in the budget" refrain. No state can afford not
to fix these bridges, he says. And dedicating public funds to the work would be a deficit-neutral way to create more than a million jobs.
"If we took only the top 2,000 of those bridges on the SaveOurBridges.com map that are most trafficked, various research shows it would take between $30 and $60 billion to do the remedial work over two years," he says in a phone interview.
"One-third of that money would come back to state and local governments, meaning $40 billion would go into increasing demand in the US for concrete, steel, and every imaginable material that goes into building a bridge."
Such a massive rebuilding push would offer jobs to 1.2 million construction workers, he estimates. New hires would be employed for an average of two years and their wages would circulate throughout communities, increasing demand for consumer goods and services that would further spur new employment. That would be welcome news to major construction, materials, and machinery companies, such as Caterpillar
(NYSE:CAT) -- whose sluggish shares were "the biggest weight"
on the dropping Dow
(INDEXDJX:DJI) early this week -- as well as Deere
(NYSE:MDR), Martin Marietta Materials
(NYSE:MLM), and Vulcan Materials Company
So why hasn't the political will materialized? LePatner argues that state and local government officials are now in the habit of using transportation dollars as part of "a political fiefdom." Politicians will build a road to a shopping mall proposed by a campaign donor, he says, but fixing an old bridge doesn't offer the same kind of glowing PR opportunity.
Early last year President Obama proposed a budget request for the 2013 fiscal year which would include a $476 billion investment in transportation over six years. Bridge repair represented only a portion of the requested budget, with much of the funding meant to be dedicated to mass transit projects like high-speed rail. After a long delay, Congress this summer approved a bill that allocated just over $100 billion to transportation spending over two years. "That's just not going to accomplish the long term goal of bringing our endangered roads and bridges up to 21st century standards and will further imperil our national security, our commercial vitality and substantially increase the eventual cost of repairing these vital facilities" says LePatner.
In November of 2011, members of the Iron Workers Union, together with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), held a rally in DC -- gathering by the "structurally deficient" South Capital Street Bridge -- to call for increased government spending on infrastructure. They demanded support for President Obama's American Jobs Act and other bills designed to dedicate public funds to road, bridge, and public transit renewal.
The ironworkers have also called attention to The Fix We're in For: The State of Our Bridges
, a report from Transportation For America. That coalition
of widely diverse government and private organizations has also created an interactive map of needy bridges. 'Gravity wins'
One striking -- and perhaps alarming -- feature about LePatner's case is that science is fully on his side. There's a consensus among engineers in the US regarding the need to fix the country's bridges. One year before the Minneapolis disaster, a local engineering firm had warned the state of Minnesota that the I-35W bridge needed reinforcement. The proposed price tag for the project was $15 million. The state said that cost was too high.
But such reluctance won't be tolerated for much longer, or so LePatner argues. Within the next few years, he thinks the situation will change. “I believe you're going to see initiatives because the word is getting out," he says.
Indeed, the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York now tops President Obama's list of 14 construction projects
on a fast-track plan for approval. It's the only bridge on the list, however.
In the end, politicians will have to pay attention, says LePatner, because bridges will start cracking and sagging, forcing closures -- or worse. "Ultimately,
gravity wins," he concludes. "Bridges fall."
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