The bridge on Interstate 5 north of Seattle was not officially labeled “structurally deficient,” the designation signaling a serious need for repairs. Built in 1955, it was instead labeled “functionally obsolete,” a lower level of priority. Last week, a truck with a too-tall load slammed into an overhead girder, causing a giant swath of the bridge to plunge into the Skagit River, cars and all. It was a sobering reminder of the precariousness of too many aging bridges — and of the fact that Massachusetts has 467 of them that have been labeled “structurally deficient.”
In 2008, after 13 people died in Minneapolis when an Interstate 35 bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River, Governor Patrick launched a $3 billion, eight-year program to accelerate the repair of bridges in the Commonwealth. Transportation Secretary Rich Davey reports that the number of structurally deficient bridges has been cut by nearly 20 percent, from 543 down to the current 467. The $1.1 billion transportation bill proposed by the governor last winter would have provided enough funding to get that number down to the low 200s by 2023, Davey says.
But the Legislature is balking at the price tag. Davey says the House’s $500 million alternative proposal might effectively end the accelerated-repair program, while the Senate’s $800 million offer would allow it to limp along. There is no help from Washington, either, as President Obama’s $50 billion proposal to repair the nation’s transportation infrastructure is mired in partisan gridlock.
But aging bridges, as proven time and time again, are a real danger. Whatever the House and Senate do with Patrick’s transportation proposal, they should do so with the understanding that any major shortchanging of bridge repairs is a sign of structural deficiency — on Beacon Hill.