In terms of time, Mississippi’s bridges are on the backside of middle age. But in bridge years, that’s almost youth-like.
Mississippi’s bridges average 30.9 years in age while nationally the average bridge is 42 years old. Bridges are designed to last roughly 50 years, experts say, a statistic that tells you Mississippi’s bridges should have a lot of life left in them.
So why are commissioners of the Mississippi Department of Transportation and legislative leaders alarmed about bridges in the Magnolia State?
Upkeep, for one. The state lacks a dedicated source of funding for that.
The toll time will take, for another. While Mississippi had just 3,065 bridges 50 or older in 2010, it is projected to have 8,405 at least a half-century old by 2030 and 14,739 reaching that age category by 2050, according to the national transportation advocacy organization Transportation for America.
Together, the state is fighting a time factor and trying to make do with a dearth of money to maintain, rehab and upgrade bridges to meet today’s user demands.
The result: A ranking by Transportation for America as the tenth worst state for structurally deficient bridges, a problem the Mississippi Department of Transportation estimates would cost $509 million to remedy. Separately, the state has 785 functionally obsolete bridges that would cost $2.1 billion to modernize into a classification as functional, MDOT says.
“Today, one out of every six bridges that motorists in Mississippi cross every day are likely to be deteriorating to some degree; and 15.5 percent of bridges statewide are rated ‘structurally deficient’ according to government standards, compared to 11.5 percent nationwide,” a 2011 analysis by Transportation for America reported.
Each day 45.8 million motorists cross Mississippi bridges, including 29,400 a day on the structurally deficient Interstate-20 bridge from Vicksburg over the Mississippi into Louisiana, reports Transportation for America, a coalition of groups that include the National Association of Realtors, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Reconnecting America, American Public Health Association, Smart Growth America, the Surface Transportation Policy Partnerships, National Resources Defense Council, Rails to Trails Conservancy and National Association of City Transportation Officials.
Mississippi is also confronted with a federal transportation funding policy that directs funds to new bridge construction rather than allocating money to fix up existing ones, says Transportation for America, citing $18 billion appropriated for new bridges in 2008 and $8.1 billion of federal funds to the states for repair and rehabilitation of bridges.
Following the federal lead, Mississippi in 2008 spent just $92 million, or 10.1 percent of its total, on bridge upkeep, Transportation for America says.
More recently, congressional renewal of the Federal Transportation Fund led to elimination of any specific requirement for state spending on bridge maintenance, with Congress deciding to leave it to the states to decide how to spend the transportation funds, Transportation for America says.
The problem with that, said Transportation for America spokesman David Goldberg, is that money for bridge maintenance “now comes into competition with everything else.”
As Mike Pepper, director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association, sees it, the federal policy combined with Mississippi’s absence of a dedicated funding source for road and bridge maintenance lead to an annual robbing of Peter to pay Paul. “When you’re on such an old funding mechanism, that’s exactly what unfolds,” he said.
Bridges maintained by counties and cities are faring even worse, with Congress putting more emphasis on federal and state highway networks and bridges and far less on local transportation networks, Goldberg said.
In Mississippi, Transportation for America reports, 2,125 of 10,896 locally maintained bridges are deficient and would cost $852 million to replace. Locally maintained functionally obsolete bridges number 444 and would cost $246 million to replace, the advocacy organization says.
Mike Tagert, MDOT commissioner for the Northern District, said he sees no easy end to the struggle of the state’s counties and municipalities to keep up their bridges, especially in the rural regions. “They need to be included in the discussion as well,” Tagert said of any movement in the Legislature to address the issue.
He said he is encouraged that the “Legislature is looking at all options on how to properly build and replace deficient bridges.”
State Sen. Willie Simmons is chairing a Senate task force on transportation that will include chairs of key Senate committees, key state department and agency heads and representatives of such organizations as the Mississippi Economic Council, Farm Bureau Federation, Manufacturing Association and Truckers Association.
Simmons, a Cleveland Democrat who chairs the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee, conceded the difficulty of gaining voter acceptance to pay more taxes or fees for road and bridge upkeep. “We aren’t proposing that at this time,” he insisted.
But he is suggesting that a change in thinking may be overdue. Without such a change, the state could be faced with deciding whether it can keep certain bridges open. “We have over 1,000 bridges that are approaching a level where we are going to have to make some serious decisions about continuing to use them,” he said in an interview last week.
“We want to avoid the situation you had last week in another state where a bridge fell in,” he said, referring to a highway bridge collapse in Missouri. That collapse followed by only a few days the crumbling of a Washington state highway bridge into water below.
Worries over the potential for disaster drive MDOT Southern District Commissioner Tom King’s hope that something proactive comes out of the work of Simmons’ task force. “Funding is very much needed…. Let’s not wait until a major accident occurs with fatalities.”
MDOT Central Commissioner Dick Hall waged a lonely campaign in the just-completed legislative session to secure a funding source for road and bridge upkeep. His main achievement, he said, was getting a conversation going and helping lawmakers to recognize more specifically just where the problems are.
“We know where the ones that need help are,” Hall said. “If we have a failure like Washington did, it will be because of a lack of funding — not engineering or lack of know how.”