Stimulus Bucks for Bridges That Don't Need Work

Most stimulus-targeted bridges in Texas are OK

Most of the dozens of Texas bridges scheduled for repairs using federal stimulus money have passed inspections with good marks, according to government transportation records.

An analysis by The Associated Press showed 77 bridges in 12 counties will be repaired or improved using stimulus money. Just 30 of them are considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete -- terms that don't mean bridges are dangerous but refer instead to whether they are eligible for federal transportation money for repairs.

Texas has about 50,000 bridges, the most of any state. Inspectors consider about 9,800 of them deficient or obsolete.

State transportation officials said under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, preferences were given to projects that were ready to go and would maximize employment. Extensive bridge repairs require years of planning, essentially making long-term bridge projects ineligible for stimulus money.

Officials said the act required them to quickly identify projects, sign contracts and spend the money -- or risk losing it.

"A bridge is not something you can make shovel-ready in a matter of months," said Kelly Breazeale, a spokeswoman with the Texas Department of Transportation's bridge division.

Texas received about $2.25 billion for roads and bridges, a cash injection that, though useful, doesn't come close to the amount needed for transportation work, said Chris Lippincott, a state transportation department spokesman. A panel of business leaders estimated Texas would have to spend about $313 billion over the next 20 years just to keep traffic congestion from getting worse, he said.

Texas roads are strained by truck traffic between Mexico and the U.S. along with a population that grows by about 1,000 residents per day, Lippincott said. Meanwhile, gas tax revenues used to pay for transportation projects have decreased as fuel efficiency has increased.

"The stimulus bill ... was passed to put shovels in the dirt and money in people's pockets," Lippincott said. "It was not meant to solve our nation's transportation problems. It was not meant to completely fix the failure of our nation to maintain and improve our critical infrastructure."

Lippincott defended the selection process, saying the bridges scheduled for repairs need improvements even if the spans are in relatively good shape.

"The feds sent us the money and we are going to spend it," he said. "We don't have the luxury of spending money on bad projects."

Fifty-three of the 77 Texas bridges identified by The AP as receiving stimulus funding are in Newton County, about 120 miles northeast of Houston, or Tarrant County. Local transportation officials decided how to use the stimulus money, and officials in those locations chose to spend it on bridges, Lippincott said.

Most of the repairs are not extensive. The Newton County bridges, for example, will receive new guardrails to replace outdated ones, he said.

Nationally, about half of the nearly 2,500 bridges scheduled for repairs with stimulus money have passed inspections with high marks, according to federal data. About 1,100 bridges received such high inspection ratings that, normally, they would be ineligible for federal bridge money. Those restrictions were lifted for the stimulus bill.

"Bridge ratings are funny things," Lippincott said. "If we find a dangerous bridge in Texas, we'll close it. Texas has the most bridges in the nation, and we take that responsibility as seriously as any of the duties in our state. We drive across those bridges, too."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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