Short-term success, tough long-term choices
By David Bernhardt, P.E. - Director of Engineering and Operations, MaineDOT
and Kenneth L. Sweeney, P.E. - Chief Engineer, MaineDOT
August 1, 2010 marks the third anniversary of the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minnesota. The collapse claimed the lives of 13 people and injured more than 145. No one wanted to see a similar event here in Maine. Further, given Maine’s topography and waterways, a reliable bridge network is vital to the economy. Bridges connect communities throughout the state, and a single bridge that is posted or closed can effectively close an entire highway corridor, meaning lost productivity. For these reasons, Governor Baldacci acted immediately and issued an executive order requiring an analysis of Maine’s bridge programs.
The resulting report, “Keeping Bridges Safe”, was the product of hundreds of hours of work by a team of professional engineers from within and without MaineDOT with over 284 years of combined experience. The report concluded that while Maine had programs and processes in place to assure bridge safety, those programs and process were more of a “safety net” – not a sustainable solution. It found that, due to capital funding constraints, the state was falling behind in bridge preservation and replacement at an increasing rate. Here is an update on where Maine stands regarding its bridges, and the tough choices that lay ahead.
Inspection safety net
MaineDOT inspects all bridges in the state – nearly 3,700 – at a minimum of every 24 months. Of these bridges, MaineDOT has capital and maintenance responsibility for the1,982 bridges on public roads that are at least 20 feet long. The Minnesota collapse caused us to reexamine our inspection process. The average age of a bridge in Maine is 50 years, with many having been constructed in the first half of the 20th century. In 2007 when the report was prepared, MaineDOT estimated that 288 bridges would need to be rehabilitated or replaced in the next 10 years to avoid posting (limiting vehicle weights) or closure. Maine’s bridge-inspection process is being strengthened with renewed focus on scour, load ratings and documentation.
Capital funding boost
Perhaps more importantly, the Maine Legislature agreed with the report and recognized the need to address bridge capital funding. The governor’s bridge initiative provided an additional $40 million per year in capital bridge funding for four years through the use of TransCap revenue bonds funded through modest increases to some vehicle fees. When combined with other state, federal and bond resources, the additional funding has allowed us to devise a four-year bridge investment plan of about $110 million per year ($20 million less than the $130 million annual funding recommended by the Keeping Bridges Safe report).
We are now two years into the four-year investment and we are slightly ahead of our goals. The 2010-2011 Capital Work Plan funded improvements for 140 bridge projects across Maine. During the first two years, we have replaced 57 bridges. The funding provided is quickly yielding new and improved bridges, and the safety and economic benefits that come with them.
Tough choices ahead
As noted above, the additional capital bridge funding will last only two more years. Other funding sources appear scarce. State Highway Fund revenues that rely on fuel taxes and vehicle fees, thankfully, appear to have stabilized after declining through the recession, but at lower levels. Federal funding – traditionally only about $38 million per year – is extremely uncertain and the chances of substantial increases appear remote. Policymakers and voters properly scrutinize state bonding initiatives, which therefore cannot form the foundation of long-term, reliable funding plans.
Yet the need still exists. Large, expensive bridges like the Penobscot Narrows Bridge ($89 million) or the Portland-South Portland Veterans Memorial Bridge ($65 million) take a substantial bite out of the funding pie. Extraordinary bridge needs in Portsmouth and Kittery loom. Hundreds of other bridges across the state need attention.
Where does that leave us? The way we think about transportation investment in Maine is going to change. We must prioritize like never before. We must consider not only the condition of bridges, but their function and need. We increasingly will be confronted with wrenching choices. Sometimes these choices will pit localized interests and perceptions against broader regional and statewide needs. These are choices nobody wants to make. But given current funding levels, they simply must be made.
Efficiency initiatives and process improvements – like those that resulted in MaineDOT’s 10 percent workforce reduction in recent years – are always important. Ultimately, those measures can solve only a small part of the problem. The choices as a state and nation, though very difficult, are essentially quite simple. We must (a) prioritize and focus our high-cost efforts on higher-priority assets, (b) pay more or (c) some combination of the two. The proper combination is not a question for us here at MaineDOT. Our job is to provide the greatest customer benefit with what we are given and to quickly and responsibly convert funding into on-the-ground, tangible improvements. MaineDOT can do that.
Policymakers, and ultimately voters, determine what is appropriate – what we are willing and able to pay. In the meantime, MaineDOT will continue to do its job and prioritize more, which will require increasingly tough choices.