Here’s a staggering and sobering statistic that should give all Americans pause: of the nearly 617,000 bridges throughout the United States, 231,000 are in jeopardy of collapsing. The potential damage, not only to the traveling public, but to local real estate markets, is staggering.
As we come out of the global pandemic we are in the early stages of what will be a $30 trillion construction boom over the next several decades, including the repair and replacement of aging infrastructure and the development and redevelopment of new towns as Americans reconfigure their work/life balance and relocate, including a continuing surge to the Sun Belt.
And yet, while all bridge collapses are terrible events, they do not all have the same economic impact. For example, the tragic I-35W collapse in 2007 caused the loss of 13 lives and injury to 145 people who fell 100 feet into the Mississippi River. A Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) study concluded that road-user costs due to the unavailability of the river crossing totaled $400,000 per day. Further analysis by Mn/DOT estimated the loss to Minnesota’s economy at about $17 million in 2007 and $43 million in 2008. It also cost the Federal government $235 million to rebuild the massive I-35W bridge.
Meanwhile, the half-century-old Fern Hollow Bridge that collapsed in Pittsburgh on Jan. 28, 2022, meant a total disruption to the many businesses along this route that carried 14,000 daily suburban residents and commercial traffic into and out of the central business district. However, a recent study showed there was no impact on the residential markets in and around Pittsburgh, while home values have increased by 14.5 percent over the last year.
Prior to the crash, the Fern Hollow Bridge was rated in poor condition, according to PennDOT, and while minor repairs were made in 2018, the more costly work of providing the needed support of critical parts of the bridge was not performed.
Looking briefly at the I-35W and Fern Hollow bridges, both provided direct access to their respective downtown areas, universities and suburban destinations. But the I-35W, with its eight lanes, carried more than 140,000 vehicles each day. The Fern Hollow Bridge carried significantly few cars daily (14,000), along with two bus routes that run approximately 200 trips each day. The collapse caused no deaths and injury to ten people.
Unlike the I-35W collapse, no similar study has been performed to date as to the economic impact of the Fern Hollow collapse. And while under President Biden’s infrastructure plan, $23.5 million of federal funding has already been made available to commence clearing debris and preparing for a new bridge, total replacement cost for the bridge is still undetermined.
Yet prior to the collapses, both bridges were rated structurally deficient i.e., they no longer had the structural integrity to carry the original number of vehicles for which they were designed due to extensive fracture cracks, corrosion, and other impairment of their original design.
Even more significant is that both bridges were deemed to be “fracture critical.” A fracture critical bridge is one designed without additional support to prevent a collapse if one support element fails. Hence, for many years there were red-lighted warning signs to federal and local DOT engineers that collapses were reasonably to be anticipated if critical repair and maintenance were not conducted.
This means both collapses could and should have been avoided, but governmental indifference to these and other hazardous bridges has been prevalent for the past 40 years.
For context, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has deemed that there are 18,000 fracture critical bridges throughout the U.S., all subject to collapse at any moment. Bridge engineers have been calling for their repair for decades to avoid loss of life and massive disruptions to the local economies and real estate markets.
In New York, for example, it cost more than $4 billion to finally replace the Tappan Zee Bridge, a budget that skyrocketed because of avoidable delays, resulting in a drain on local budgets that could have been spent elsewhere.
As Americans, we tend to only pay attention to bridges when they collapse, so consider: in the U.S. today, 42 percent of all bridges are at least 50 years old, and the average age is 44 years. Of these, nearly 50,000 bridges are considered structurally deficient, meaning they are in “poor” condition. Travelers take 178 million trips over these structurally deficient bridges every day. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently estimated the nation’s backlog of bridge repair needs at $125 billion. At the current rate of investment, it will take until 2071 to make the repairs that are currently necessary.
Further, as we continue to recover from the pandemic, our ability to develop and repair our built environment is being further stressed by global supply chain issues. The national and local real estate markets are already grappling with the lack of available construction materials.
If you are already frustrated with the resulting price increases and shipment delays, what do you think will happen to both if the trucks delivering those goods travel over bridges that end up collapsing? And how long will it then take for those bridges to be repaired or replaced, re-opening these routes? Commuter traffic can also be seriously impacted, causing a ripple effect on local economies.
Every local real estate market is distinct, and one-third of the bridges that enable transport to and from those markets are on the endangered list. Whether or not a bridge collapse will have a significant impact on the local real estate market is situational, but one thing is clear: we have a massive problem we’re well aware of. The question is whether we have the will do to anything about it.
Barry B. LePatner, Esq.is the nationally recognized construction lawyer and advisor to corporate, commercial and real estate developers and lenders. He is the author of Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward (Univ. of New England Press, 2010), which highlighted the perilous nature of our crumbling roads and bridges.