With half a billion in new federal funding, will Virginia finally fix its bridge repair backlog?

February 23, 2022 12:03 am

The Interstate 64 bridge over Shockoe Valley in Richmond. (Wyatt Gordon/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Earlier this month, when Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., visited the Glebe Road Bridge that connects Arlington and Alexandria, that crumbling connection served as the perfect background to announce $536.8 million in additional federal funding to address Virginia’s dilapidated bridges.

With more than 577 “structurally deficient” bridges in the commonwealth, the appropriation for repairs is certainly welcome. However, how did more than one in 25 bridges deteriorate into a “poor or worse condition” in a state with a nearly $7 billion annual budget for its Department of Transportation?

Fix it later

The previous week’s dramatic bridge collapse in Pittsburgh underscored the need for more money for American infrastructure. With $110 billion in new road dollars allocated in Congress’ Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, money may not be the biggest hurdle to repairing the country’s deteriorated bridges. 

The House version of the IIJA included provisions to push states towards a “fix-it-first” model — a policy which prioritizes the maintenance of existing infrastructure over building out new road capacity. After the Senate moved forward with a version of the bill lacking that language, the Federal Highway Administration issued fix-it-first guidance to states. 

Although the guidance was never binding anyway, the notion that states would actually invest the $110 billion into repairs before highway expansion got even less likely after Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., issued a memo explicitly instructing states to ignore it. The dedication to road expansion over maintenance isn’t just a Republican position, however. Plenty of Democratic governors and elected officials are equally interested in pouring transportation dollars into widening highways.

“When I ran for governor back in 2001 one of my lines was, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could finish I-64 in our lifetimes?’ said Warner. “It’s 20 years later, and we still haven’t finished I-64 from Richmond to Hampton Roads. While yes, adding an additional lane is expansion, I would argue in that case it is expansion because demand is so high. And from a clean energy standpoint, if you’ve got gridlock every weekend going to the beach versus traffic that flows, I think finishing up that additional lane from Richmond to Williamsburg makes sense.”

Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation for America — a national transportation reform group — and a former U.S. Department of Transportation official, said road maintenance is politicians’ version of flossing your teeth: it’s something you have to do, but you don’t get praised for doing it. In fact, most elected officials actually get beaten up in the press for doing the right thing on road repairs due to near-daily articles on how inconvenient delays are. 

The opposite is true of highway expansion. The announcement of new lanes almost always entails a big press conference complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Such incentives make it hard to break the 80-year plus American tradition of thinking that just one more lane will finally fix all of our traffic problems. 

“There’s this faith-based transportation belief system that if we just build enough lanes, then there will be no traffic,” Osborne said. “We should be asking, ‘What is a fully utilized road? How much of the day should it not be fully utilized so that we’re not wasting money?’ It’s too tantalizing to buy more toys before we take care of the toys we have. We can’t seem to fail at this enough to learn the lesson.”

The Benjamin Harrison Bridge over the lower James was rated in “fair condition” by VDOT in 2018. (Spencer Tassone/Virginia Commonwealth University)

Better but still bad

Compared to the rest of the country, Virginia could be much worse. According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, the commonwealth ranks 25th in the nation in terms of how many bridges we have that are “structurally deficient.” A 2019 VDOT review laid out a plan to bring all the state’s roadway assets up to a standard of “sustainable performance” within 20 years. To achieve that goal, VDOT is currently spending $463 million a year on pavement, $440 million on bridge rehabilitation and $130 million on “special structures” — tunnels and movable and complex bridges. That $1.033 billion represents just under 15 percent of VDOT’s annual expenditures.

In Pennsylvania, where a structurally deficient bridge recently collapsed, well over 70 percent of the state’s DOT budget goes towards repairs. In Massachusetts, that figure is nearly 96 percent, and that commonwealth’s roads and bridges still aren’t up to standard. The experience of our northern neighbors should serve as a warning to Virginia according to Osborne: “Once you’re behind, you can spend most or all of your money on repair and still not be able to get out of the hole.”

Technically, fix-it-first is already the law of the land in Virginia thanks to a provision in former Gov. Ralph Northam’s 2020 transportation omnibus bill. Like many statutes in state law, however, the language is not as strong as it should be. 

“Too much money is still being spent on new road construction which creates additional maintenance needs,” said Trip Pollard, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “That is not adequately considered when we allocate transportation dollars: We are building a longer list of future maintenance needs.”

ARTBA estimates that rehabilitating Virginia’s 6,359 bridges requiring repairs would cost $11.4 billion. That figure is down from 2017’s tally of 6,666 bridges in need of work. Just 16 of the commonwealth’s hundreds of structurally deficient bridges are on highways. The rest are primarily on secondary and rural roads, undergirding arguments that fix-it-first policies are especially beneficial to rural residents’ safety and economic prospects.

A fix or fuel for the fire?

Equity concerns about who gets left behind (and killed) by our car-centric infrastructure and the increasing intensity of the climate crisis are beginning to shift the thinking on further highway expansions. While in Oregon high schoolers are leading protests to stop a proposed highway widening and accusing that state’s DOT of “climate arson,” in Virginia the conversation has been calmer (as is our tradition). But that doesn’t mean that politicians’ talking points aren’t changing here as well.

“There needs to be a bit of a mindset shift to both thinking about repairing additional infrastructure and also thinking about much more multimodal,” Warner said. “The default option has always been lane expansion where I hope now that we will think more in terms of, ‘Yes, you need highways, but you also need transit. You need rail. Adding bike paths are part of this.’ This mindshift to think beyond asphalt is something I think you are starting to see in DOTs, and some of that is just going to come with a generational shift.”

Environmentalists like Pollard worry we don’t have time to wait on a changing of the guard at VDOT, especially not with over $8 billion in new highway and transit funding flowing into the commonwealth from the IIJA over the next five years.

“The infrastructure act is a landmark piece of legislation, but this money could end up wrecking our landscapes and our communities if it’s spent to increase highways and driving across Virginia,” Pollard said. “I-64 is a perfect example of that problem. Highway spending has been shown again and again to increase driving and therefore increase tailpipe pollution. The bottom line is that our state and regional transportation dollars continue to focus too much on expanding and creating new highways.”

As one of the leading voices on reforming transportation spending, Osborne believes that the current system is working just as its creators intended: “The more you fail in transportation — the more people die, the more expenses increase, the more bridges collapse, the louder the calls to put more money into the programs that produced that failure in the first place. There is no accountability. These senators who voted for [the IIJA] promise us results every time, but I just heard a bridge fell down in Pittsburgh. How many times do they promise the same results without changing the program that is producing these same failures?”

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network.