Nation & World

Ohio River bridge put spotlight on nation's aging infrastructure

President Barack Obama is using a crumbling Kentucky bridge over the Ohio River as a prime example of the need to rebuild the nation's aging infrastructure.

"There are private construction companies all across America just waiting to get to work," Obama told Congress on Sept. 8, unveiling his newest job-creation plan. "There's a bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky that's on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America."

But it was a second Kentucky bridge over the Ohio River that officials ordered closed the next day after engineers found cracks in its steel beams. That closure is forcing tens of thousands of vehicles through jammed city streets and onto a third Kentucky bridge over the Ohio River, this one rated by inspectors as even less sufficient than the others to remain in service.

Those three interstate highway bridges — the first in Cincinnati, the next two in Louisville, all built in the early 1960s — are tentatively scheduled to be supplemented with three new bridges at a combined cost of up to $6.5 billion. That money will be hard to find while the federal government cuts spending and states confront their own budget shortfalls.

However, experts say inaction no longer is viable. Every day, several hundred thousand motorists and millions of dollars in commerce rely on these links between Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, including trucks that fill Central Kentucky groceries with food and factories with raw parts.

An aging bridge seems like an abstract problem until it closes. Or — far worse — it collapses, killing those unfortunate enough to be on it at the time.

"When you have major projects like these bridges, they are extremely costly. We're not sure where the money is going to come from. And so it's very tempting to put off making the sort of investments that we need to make. That's what we've been doing," said Merl Hackbart, a former state budget director who teaches public finance at the University of Kentucky.

One in four of the nation's 599,766 bridges are rated "structurally deficient" (in need of reconstruction) or "functionally obsolete" (too small for modern traffic loads), according to a 2008 report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. For Kentucky's 13,637 bridges, it's nearly one in three.

It would cost $140 billion to immediately repair or replace every bridge in the country that needs it, which is about 14 times what the federal, state and local governments actually spent on bridge improvements in 2006, the state highway officials wrote in their report.

"The nation has a generation of Baby Boomer bridges, constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, that need major repair or replacement. Usually built to last 50 years, the average bridge in this country today is 43 years old," the officials wrote three years ago.

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