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Thousands of bridges left behind in race to rebuild infrastructure

A Scripps News investigation identified more than 14,000 bridges listed in poor condition for at least a decade.
Thousands of bridges left behind in race to rebuild infrastructure
Posted at 12:55 PM, Aug 10, 2023

Billions of federal tax dollars are going toward fixing worn-out bridges coast to coast, but a Scripps News investigation using newly released federal data shows it won't be nearly enough to touch thousands of bridges that are corroded, cracked and at a heightened risk of being shut down for safety. 

On a frigid morning in January 2022, Pittsburgh learned what can happen when an old bridge lingers in a state of disrepair. 

Residents of the Regent Square neighborhood bolted awake at 6:39 a.m. to the sound of a thunderous crash coming from nearby Frick Park. 

"It sounded like an explosion or some kind of a bomb dropping," Melissa Bakth said. 

A block and a half from her home, the snow-covered Fern Hollow Bridge had collapsed, sliding 100 feet to the hilly ground. First responders found a city bus and several cars in a chasm of concrete and steel wreckage. All 10 people on the bridge at the time survived, but there were injuries, including broken bones. 

"Everyone was just kind of standing there like, how did this happen?" Bakth said. 

Scripps News discovered that warnings about the bridge went back years. Documents in litigation filed by survivors of the collapse show a long paper trail of neglect. A 2001 bridge inspection report documented corrosion of the bridge's legs. By 2005, there was "severe corrosion." 

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board found clogged drains on the bridge that led to some of the deterioration. After the collapse, the NTSB broadened its look at bridges across Pennsylvania and found a state riddled with bridges in similar states of degradation. 

"The problem of incomplete maintenance — where maintenance was identified as needed in inspection reports but not completed — was not unique to the Fern Hollow Bridge," the NTSB wrote in a May 2023 report. 

At the disaster scene in Pittsburgh, President Joe Biden said it would jump-start his plans to target federal funding to help cities across the U.S. refurbish ailing bridges. 

"We're going to fix them all," the president told reporters that day. "Not a joke. This is going to be a gigantic change." 

Since Biden took office, money from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law he championed and other federal funding sources have helped pay for over 6,400 bridge repair and replacement efforts across the country. That still leaves thousands of bridges in need of funding, according to a Scripps News analysis of data released in July by the Federal Highway Administration. 

More than 14,000 bridges in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., have been ranked in poor condition for at least a decade. Combined, they carry over 46 million passengers every day. While a bridge in "poor" condition doesn't mean it will collapse, it may require weight limits for trucks and more frequent inspections. Bridges in poor condition are at greater risk of closure for safety concerns. Repairing all of the poor bridges identified in the Scripps News analysis would cost at least $97 billion.

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"That list, that number, is not going to go down," said Kent Harries, a structural engineering professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "We've been neglecting our infrastructure pretty much since we built it. I'm not certain that it's perceived as critically by the public as it should be." 

Bridge projects lacking funds extend beyond Pennsylvania to the rest of the country, including bridges that are not technically considered to be in poor condition. Plans have been in the works for years to fix the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle, weakened by an earthquake in 2001. In Massachusetts, it will take $4 billion to replace the Sagamore and Bourne bridges connecting Cape Cod. Those bridges are all considered to be in fair condition, despite all of them needing major work. 

Northeast of Denver, a bridge going over six lanes of US-85 has spindly cracks all over the bottom of its concrete deck. It has been in poor condition since 1989. 

None of these bridges is on the Biden administration's repair list. 

Even in the city of Pittsburgh, more than a year after the Fern Hollow disaster, Scripps News found bridges in startling states of disrepair. 

Harries pointed out problems with the 28th Street Bridge, used by thousands of people every day. 

"This is one of the only connections across and then up for quite some distance," Harries said at the base of the bridge. 

Parts of the bridge date back to 1890, with records detailing deterioration going back 30 years. 

"We can see older steel," Harries said as flakes of rusted steel on the bridge supports come off in his hands. "This is a great example of just not having the resources to address what's necessary." 

The Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure said the bridge is scheduled to undergo full rehabilitation, but not until 2026. 

Across town, the Maple Avenue bridge has holes big enough to see the sky from beneath the bridge deck. A tree grows out of a concrete side of the bridge. 

Marcie Kemmler runs Don's Diner below the towering California Avenue Bridge. She keeps a box of rusted pieces she says break off from the bridge all the time, falling to the ground below. 

The bridge dates back to 1928. 

"I know there's a tight budget and there's a lot of bridges in the city," Kemmler said. "I don't want to see anybody get hurt. I don't want to see a repeat of the Fern Hollow Bridge." 

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey had been in office less than a month when Fern Hollow fell. In a sit-down interview with Scripps News, he said he could not answer why the bridge had not been repaired sooner. 

"I can't really speak to that because that would be previous administrations," Gainey said. "I can't focus on what didn't get done. I have to focus on what we have to do to make every resident in this city safe." 

After the disaster, Gainey ordered a review of all of the city's bridges. 

New repair projects are underway but work on many of the bridges is still years away. He said a lack of money makes it impossible to quickly fix all of the bridges in need of attention. 

"If we could, we would," Gainey said. "Funding is a major issue, not just for the city. Infrastructure throughout America needs to be improved. I'm so fortunate that President Biden has focused on a bipartisan infrastructure bill, but the reality is we need more." 

A transportation department spokesperson said it's true that even with the recent infusion of federal funding, it will take more money to address the staggering backlog of bridges in need. 

The day after Kemmler talked to Scripps News at her diner, city officials told her they would work on keeping chunks of bridge from chipping off. Major repairs on the California Avenue Bridge are targeted for 2027. 

A few miles away, a new Fern Hollow Bridge recently reopened. 

Bakth walks the new bridge with her daughter but says she won't ever forget the day the old bridge fell. 

"This could have been so much worse," Bakth said. "Your sense of security and trust in something that you rely on daily, you can't trust anymore."

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