In the months since the fatal collapse of the I-35W bridge in
Minneapolis, safety concerns about the nation's 600,000 bridges
have become a leading symbol of what many contend is America's
crumbling infrastructure. And while an earlier Heritage article and a
subsequent federal report noted that design flaws-not a lack of
money-may have been the chief cause of the collapse, many have used
the tragedy to justify more government spending on the nation's
infrastructure, including bridges.
Where Did the Money Go?
Congress, under the impression that a lack of money is the main
problem, appropriated an additional $1 billion for bridge repair
for FY 2008 and is attempting to add another $1 billion with H.R.
3999 for FY 2009.
But a review of the federal bridge program reveals that an
absence of money is not the chief problem and that some of the $4
billion-plus in bridge repair money that the Federal Highway
Administration (FHWA) provides the states may have been diverted by
some states to projects other than bridges. More troubling is that
states accounting for some of the largest financial diversions from
bridge repair also have the greatest share of unsafe bridges.
The Federal Bridge Repair Program
Under current law, federal support for highway bridge repair is
available through the Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation
Program (HBP), one of the five core federal surface transportation
programs funded by the highway trust fund. Including additional funds
from the Equity Bonus Program and Revenue Aligned Budget Authority,
total federal apportionments to the states for bridge repair
averaged $4.5 billion per year between FY 2002 and FY 2007.
Importantly, these support levels reflect a significant jump in
federal spending from prior years. Total federal bridge repair
obligations jumped 63 percent in FY 2002 on an increase from $1.9
billion in FY 2001 to $3.1 billion in FY 2002.
Notwithstanding the widespread contention that our
infrastructure is collapsing and that its quality deteriorates year
by year, data collected and reported by the FHWA reveal that
considerable progress has been made since 1990 in reducing the
number of unsafe bridges in the United States. As the earlier
Heritage report notes: "The U.S. Department of Transportation
[USDOT] in its 2006 Conditions and Performance Report
reveals significant progress over the past decade in reducing the
number of structurally deficient bridges. In 1994, 18.7 percent of
the nation's bridges were identified as structurally deficient, but
that number had fallen to 13.1 percent by 2004, a 30 percent
reduction." Using unpublished FHWA data, the
Congressional Research Service (CRS) updated and expanded the time
series, reporting that even more progress has been made and that
the number of structurally deficient bridges fell to 12 percent in
Progress Could Have Been Better
Despite this impressive record of progress, a number of recently
added provisions in the federal highway program have allowed both
Congress and some state DOTs to divert portions of the funds
dedicated to the federal bridge program to non-bridge repair
One of the more recent diversions from the bridge repair program
is for bridge earmarks. The enactment of the last highway
reauthorization bill in August 2005 (SAFETEA-LU) created within HBP
a $100 million annual set-aside for designated new bridge
projects. As the CRS has noted in its recent report, "The set-aside
has been criticized by supporters of the HBP both because all of
the money was designated to projects set forth in the text of the
act and because a significant dollar amount of the set-aside is for
new bridge construction, which would not be normally allowed
under the HBP." Not surprisingly, among these earmarks was
$93,750,000 for Alaska's Gravina Island "Bridge to Nowhere."
States Take Advantage
The greater diversion, however, appears to be taking place at
the state level when states opt to use the greater flexibility
provided in recent reauthorization bills to move funds from one
core highway program to another. In a number of cases, and
notwithstanding the recent emphasis on greater bridge repair and
safety, some states have transferred funds from the bridge program
to the other core federal programs, notably the Surface
Transportation Program (STP), which allows for a wider latitude of
uses, including transit.
In this regard, one notable anomaly in the spending numbers
provided by FHWA is the wide gap between what Congress has
apportioned to HBP (the maximum amount that could be spent
in any year) compared to what gets obligated to HBP (funds
actually committed to specific bridge projects). In FY 2006, for
example, apportionments totaled $4.5 billion, yet obligations
amounted to only $2.5 billion, leaving a gap of $2 billion that
could have been dedicated to bridge repair, but may not have. Over
the FY 2002 to FY 2007 period, the gap totaled $9.29 billion.
Between FY 2003 and FY 2007, three states-Arizona, Minnesota, and
Pennsylvania-obligated less than 60 percent of their HBP
apportionment, as USDOT has reported in its state-by-state analysis
of bridge conditions.
Although much of the use to which the money in the funding gap
was directed remains a mystery, a portion of it (about $2.1
billion) can be explained by the actions of 20 states to transfer
federal highway money from one core program to another. In this
case, the $2.1 billion was transferred from the HBP program to
others, most often to the STP program, where some of it may have
been used to support local transit. Leading the states in the
bridge money diversion derby is Pennsylvania, which diverted $1.3
billion between FY 2000 and FY 2007. Not surprisingly, Pennsylvania
also led the nation in the share of its bridges rated structurally
deficient-25 percent, compared to a nationwide average of 12
Money Is Not the Problem
As the federal data reveal, there are good reasons for motorists
to be concerned about how the federal government and some state
DOTs use the resources available to them to swiftly repair the
nation's 72,000 structurally deficient bridges. While many are
calling for more federal funding, evidence suggests that existing
bridge repair funds may have been diverted to other purposes-and
that this process continues. Before committing more taxpayer
dollars to the bridge repair program, the inspector general for the
USDOT should conduct a comprehensive financial audit of both the
federal and the state programs to determine how much bridge repair
money has been misused and to suggest remedies to improve the
Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D., is
Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Thomas A.
Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage
Alan Pisarski and Ronald Utt, "What We Don't Know Yet About the
Minnesota Bridge Collapse," Modesto Bee, August 29, 2007, at
Since that report was published, the National Transportation Safety
Board has released interim findings attributing the collapse to
"errors in the original design."
Robert S. Kirk and William J. Mallet, "Highway Bridges: Conditions
and the Federal/State Role," CRS Report for Congress,
RL34127 (updated September 19, 2008).
Kirk and Mallet, p. CRS-7 for summary details of the HBP
Pisarski and Utt, "What We Don't Know Yet About the Minnesota
Kirk and Mallet, "Highway Bridges," p. CRS-3.
Ibid., p. CRS-6 (emphasis added).
Section 1114 (g)(1)(A) of P.L. 109-59 for list of bridge
Calculated from Kirk and Mallett, "Highway Bridges," table 2, p.
CRS-9. Although annual obligation limitations and rescissions may
explain some of the gap, it cannot explain the 33 percent
difference over the period. See also U.S. Government Accountability
Office, Highway Bridge Program: Clearer Goals and Performance
Measures Needed for a More Focused and Sustainable Program,
GAO-08-1043, September 2008, pp. 19-22 for a detailed discussion of
some of the reasons for the gap.