Fix what we’ve got now,
or build what we’ll need soon?

The costs to fix bridges competes for funds to make yours a more climate-proof town.

Photo by Isaac Viglione on Unsplash

A pedestrian overpass at Florida International University fell down recently. It was built for students to walk from school across a busy highway to a residential neighborhood.

Anyone looking at images of the deadly tragedy might wonder how many other bridges in America are near collapse. The answer is a whole lot! The Federal Highway Administration has rated almost 200,000 bridges, one of every three bridges across the country, as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Want to see the number of structurally deficient bridges in your state? Check at the Federal Highway Administration.

It’s easy to see the big threat here – or is it?

Yes, on average, there are lots of trips across a structurally deficient bridge each day – 188 million in 2016.  A few bridges may fail in coming years, perhaps injuring or killing those nearby. But engineers try to make sure dangerous bridges are speed- or weight-reduced first and then closed before they fail. Compared to other physical dangers in our lives, a bridge falling as we cross over or under it is a remote risk.

The real threat is – you guessed it – financial. The condition of our bridges is a good indicator, not of your future medical bills, but of your future tax bills. The FHA projections tell us that nineteen percent of Rhode Island’s daily traffic was recently on deficient bridges; in Texas it’s less than one percent. Costs to fix just bridges are estimated to be from $3.1 billion in New York down to $10 million in Nevada.

What’s this got to do with climate-proofing your life?

Some hometowns face staggering costs; others almost nothing.

  • Climate change is a big decay factor. Rapidly rising temperatures and increasing extreme weather are accelerating the deterioration of roads and bridges in many communities. Heat softens asphalt; precipitation corrodes steel and rebar in prestressed concrete. Floods wash out footings.
  • Under current proposals from the White House and Capitol Hill for national infrastructure spending, federal taxes would cover only  20% or so, calling for the lion’s share of all costs to be raised by state and city budgets taxes. Or through ‘partnerships’ with private enterprise (think toll booths on those repaired bridges).
  • And – here’s the point – yesterday’s infrastructure needs to compete with tomorrow’s. Those road and bridge expenditures could easily postpone outlays to build seawalls against a rising ocean, to rebuild sewers and install permeable pavement to cut flooding and pollution, or to find new water sources or finance retreat from sea level rise. Some towns, if they choose to fix the dangers in their current infrastructure, may never find the money to protect themselves from the dangers of climate change.

Remember that bridges are just one element of America’s infrastructure. From the American Society of Civil Engineers, we get terrible grades on our

roads (D)
drinking water systems (D)
school buildings (D+)
ports (C+)
waterways (D)
wastewater (D+)
transit systems (D-)

All of this infrastructure calls out for repair or replacement.

What are your defensive strategies?

First, guided by our Hometown Scorecards, find out what your risks are. Do you live in

A naturally climate-proof hometown? If so, stick around. Enjoy.

A hometown where the effects of climate-change are going to goose your cost of living and erode your lifestyle? If so, think about moving to a hometown that’s not in the crosshairs of climate change. There are plenty of nice places across America. Our Scorecards can help you find one.

A climate-threatened place, but you intend to stay? Plan on working proactively with neighbors and town leadership to build what physical and financial protections you can. Our blog points to many such initiatives.

We’d love to hear about your decision process, either in a Comment below or on our Facebook or Twitter pages.