Tired of talking about bridges? Get ready for more talk of failing bridges and highways.
By Lauren Corey, MBTA President
This year, particularly since August, we have spent a lot of our time talking and thinking about bridges. After Governor Baldacci’s bridge report, released in late November, I am sure we will be hearing and discussing them a lot more in the coming year.
At least we should be.
The report, prepared by a distinguished panel of engineers from MaineDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, the University of Maine and the private sector, found that while Maine’s bridges are safe, it will take a lot of money and/or sacrifice on the part of Maine people to keep them that way. At the Maine Transportation Conference in early December, MaineDOT Deputy Commissioner Bruce Van Note laid out our options succinctly: “Pay or post.”
After more than a decade of declining transportation funding, this stark reality only now is beginning to take hold in the public mind, in part due to the tragic collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis this past August. Governor Baldacci acted swiftly following the collapse, and issued an executive order asking for a report on Maine’s bridges. Specifically, he asked whether Maine’s bridge program was adequate, and wanted to know what more could be done to ensure public safety.
Two days after the tragedy, the governor pledged to propose additional funding for bridges if weaknesses are found during the upcoming review of bridges. His comment to the Portland Press Herald on August 3 was: “Whatever their recommendations are, that is going to be the plan that I put forward.”
The governor’s report, titled “Keeping Our Bridges Safe,” offers a glimpse at the enormous resources that it will take – $130 million dollars a year – to keep our bridges safe. That is $50-$60 million more than what is currently being funded. We are anxious to work with the governor and legislators to develop a package that begins to address the crisis with our bridges.
That’s the money part. Here is the sacrifice part.
If we don’t come up with that money, we can expect to see more bridge closures and postings. A lot more. Just a few weeks ago, MaineDOT released a new watch list of bridges, increasing the number of vulnerable bridges in need of repair or replacement by almost 100. Today, there are 386 bridges at risk, when there were 288 last year. At the time, I remember thinking that was an enormous number.
The new watch list is even more awe-inspiring: a full 14 percent of Maine bridges are in critical need of repair or replacement.
The governor’s report hints that many more bridges could soon join the ranks of those ailing bridges (see “Dropping the other shoe,” page 21). We have hundreds of bridges identified as vulnerable to scour – the leading cause of bridge failure. We also have a significant number with fracture critical connections, the second leading cause of bridge failure. To further stack the deck against us, we have an enormous number of older bridges. Even if we are able to double the funding dedicated to Maine’s bridge program, MaineDOT undoubtedly will be forced to close or post more bridges.
In “Keeping Our Bridges Safe,” the department states a goal of replacing bridges at an average age of 80 years. The majority of Maine’s bridges were built with a projected lifespan of 50 years. Through its maintenance program, MaineDOT has been able to extend the life of many bridges. However, 80 years is a generous assumption when you consider that other states expect their bridges to last 50 years, as does the Maine Turnpike Authority.
Still, replacement at 80 years is a very optimistic goal. According to the MaineDOT’s draft long-range plan: “At the current replacement rate of 14 bridges per year, bridge life expectancy would need to be 185 years.” That plan calls for replacing 32 bridges per year.
“Keeping Our Bridges Safe,” completed just a few months later, ups the ante. It calls for the state to “increase bridge replacements from approximately 14 per year today, to between 30 and 40.”
If we don’t come up with the money, what will all of those postings and closings mean?
Once again, this is about sacrifice – sacrificing safety and prosperity. All we have to do is to look at history. Maine’s economy was ushered into the modern age just about the same time that the first of those bridges were constructed. Maine communities benefited even more when the interstate was built. That is no coincidence. All of the bridges we build – and the roads connecting them – pave the way for a vibrant and growing economy. While closing and posting more bridges may not mean the dawn of a Dark Age in Maine, it will undoubtedly have a negative and lasting impact on our economy.
That’s our cue. The Maine Better Transportation Association and our members need to get to work. Everyone has given so much of their time and support during the past year, and I thank you. But we need to do more. Please talk with your family, neighbors, friends and business associates. Get them talking about bridges. Tell them to check MaineDOT’s new watch list to see what bridges they count on in their daily lives are at risk (we have it posted on our advocacy page at www.mbtaonline.org). Encourage them to imagine how their lives will be if they can’t use those bridges any more. Urge them to weigh in on this important topic and to let their legislators know that we need to keep our bridges safe.
And I don’t need to tell you that bridges aren’t our only problem, although that is where the public focus is right now. We need to find a long-term, sustainable funding structure that our transportation system can depend on into the future. MBTA is committed to leading that charge.
Money is tight right now. Still, as history has shown us, capital investments in transportation infrastructure have the power to stimulate our economy and make life better for everyone in Maine.
I wish you and your families a happy 2008, and I look forward to seeing you all soon. MBTA has a full schedule of events planned. Thanks for all your good work in 2007. I look forward to rolling up our sleeves and getting to work in the New Year!