Bridges are an afterthought to most Americans. We get in a car, ride a bus, or relax on a train and head over all types of bridges without thinking about it. We cross railroad bridges, pedestrian bridges, and highway bridges all the time, but how often do we even consider the structural integrity of these engineering marvels? Rarely, right? We should probably reconsider.
There are an estimated 600,000 bridges in the United States. They are, on average, 42 years old. Furthermore, an estimated 11% of them are structurally deficient. If nobody used those 60,000+ deficient bridges, that wouldn’t be a big deal: If they were all abandoned railroad bridges from a time before cars, we wouldn’t have to worry. However, that’s not the case.
In looking at just metropolitan areas, estimates reach as high as 200 million trips — every day — that go over structurally deficient bridges. 200 million trips is an incredible amount, and it’s even more frightening when you realize that it’s not one person in each vehicle or trip each time.
Is this Fixable?
Unfortunately, that depends who you’re asking. In some cases, replacing a bridge or finding a temporary fix is fairly easy. Temporary roads or a temporary walking bridge can be a not-monumental task (consider how the United States has often used military floating bridges as a means to cross unexpected waterways on extremely short notice), and it’s even possible to find ways to install a bridge in minutes, but one bridge doesn’t solve the United States’ problems.
The Federal Highway Administration has proposed numbers to fix the nation’s bridges — just road bridges, not including railroad bridges — by the year 2028. Their proposal would necessitate an increase of funds by almost 70% per year. Not surprisingly, that kind of budget increase is unlikely. Furthermore, it would only tackle bridges that fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Highway Administration, leaving thousands of other bridges unaccounted for.
In order to replace bridges — which is necessary in thousands of these cases, instead of simply updating them — you need a lot of information, a lot of time, and a lot of money. First, railroad bridges and car bridges fit vastly different criteria when being built, so each has its own set of standards. Second, shoring equipment is not universal, so you’ll need to know if timber or aluminum hydraulic will be more cost-effective on your project. Third, what type of benching are you going to need? None of these topics are even taking into account the design, size, cost, or even materials of building a bridge.
The United State is slowly reaching an infrastructure crisis. Hopefully this vast swath of dangerous bridges is taken care of before they begin reaching their literal breaking points.
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