Crumbling Infrastructure

Last week, the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) notified the public of a significant safety concern with bridge decks in the I-15/I-90 interchange in Butte.  (See attached video for illustration of the structural decay).  These structures were built in 1963, and are nearing the end of their expected 50-year lifespan.  At 53 years old, these structures exceed the average age of American highway bridges by 11 years.

According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), over 68,800 bridges – representing more than 11 percent of total highway bridges in the U.S. – are classified as “structurally deficient.”  (see graphic below)  Structurally deficient bridges require significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement.  According to FHWA’s 2009 statistics, $70.9 billion is needed to address the current backlog of deficient bridges.

Allowing roads and bridges to slip into disrepair ultimately costs state and local governments billions more than the cost of regular, timely repair.  Over a 25-year period, deferring maintenance of bridges and highways can cost more than three times as much as preventative repairs.  The backlog also increases safety risks, hinders economic prosperity and significantly burdens taxpayers.

Transportation for America suggests that “preservation efforts can also extend the expected service life of a road for an additional 18 years, preventing the need for major reconstruction or replacement. In addition to the safety imperative, investing in the construction, expansion and repair of our nation’s transportation infrastructure creates jobs today while laying the foundation for long-term economic prosperity.  Repair work on roads and bridges generates 16 percent more jobs than construction of new bridges and roads.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that “America is currently spending more failing to act on our investment gap than we would to close it.  Inefficient infrastructure is costing every household $9.30 a day. However, if every family instead invested an additional $3.00 a day per household, we could close the infrastructure investment gap in 10 years.”

This emergency project is a clear priority, but we cannot ignore the looming threat of our aging roads and bridges and the exponentially mounting costs associated with doing nothing.  The Infrastructure Coalition intends to make transportation infrastructure investment a priority in the 2017 legislative session to ensure adequate funding levels to address the most critical roadway and bridge needs at state and local levels.

About the Montana Infrastructure Coalition– The Montana Infrastructure Coalition is an association of over 60 public and private organizations involved in the design, construction, operation and maintenance of our most critical infrastructure in Montana.  The purpose of this Coalition is to help change public policy and improve the manner in which State and local governments build and maintain these essential community assets.

Leveraging Federal Dollars and Meeting Local Needs

The Montana Department of Transportation has an annual budget of over $710 million.  Over $390 million of that money comes from the Federal government by way of grants through the Federal Highway Administration.  The monies from the Feds are doled out on a project-by-project basis with the State of Montana responsible for approximately 13 percent of the project cost, and the Feds picking up 87 percent of the cost.

Under current projections, the Montana Department of Transportation is expected to fall $27 million short of budget projections, putting many projects and the federal highway matching dollars at risk.

Since the first quarter of this year, MDT has been suggesting that lower-priority projects on secondary highways would be cut, while projects on the Interstate and Primary systems would remain largely unaffected.  (Daily Inter Lake, Mar. 2, 2016)

The Montana Infrastructure Coalition believes that safe and efficient roads and bridges are fundamental elements of a healthy community and a robust economy.  Leveraging the full amount of federal highway dollars available should be a top priority for every legislature.  However, even if the federal match can be made in 2017, the question lingers on what other secondary or local roadway project needs will remain unaddressed.

An average of over 200 drivers are killed on Montana’s highways each year.  Montana’s traffic fatality rate is third highest in the nation, with fatality rates on non-Interstate rural roads standing at more than two-and-a-half times the rate on all other roads and highways in the state.  Yet simple safety improvements – like adding turn lanes, removing or shielding obstacles, adding or improving medians, widening lanes, widening and paving shoulders, improving intersection layout, and providing better road markings and upgrading or installing traffic signals – may be the first projects to be delayed under budget shortfalls.

Funding for such basic safety improvements shouldn’t be an afterthought, and need not be subjected to political negotiations at the end of each legislative session.  It is essential that Montana fully leverage the federal monies available, but we cannot ignore the critical safety needs on local roadways.  With better planning, we don’t have to choose which comes first – we can do both.

Please join the Montana Infrastructure Coalition in expressing our support for a more thoughtful and sustainable approach to local road and bridge funding, and to consistently leveraging federal highway dollars to maintain our state and federal highways across Montana.