Rhode Island is one of the smallest states in the U.S., yet more than 56% of its bridges are deficient. Its roads aren’t any better. According to estimates, the state’s neglected roads cost drivers $637 a year in vehicle repairs, making it just one example of why the U.S. received a D+ grade in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 U.S. infrastructure report card. The report scored bridges with a C+, while roads earned a D.
Due to limited funding from state and federal governments, roads with poor conditions are rampant throughout the United States, with 23 states having more than 50% of their roads graded as deficient. Of those states, six have more than 70% of their roads in disrepair.
According to estimates, more than 3 trillion miles were traveled on U.S. roadways in 2016. Overall vehicle travel has also increased, putting even more pressure on a weakened infrastructure. Higher travel rates, weather, and weather treatments like de-icing chemicals all contribute to a road’s aging. It’s the overall lack of maintenance, however, that eventually makes roads deficient.
Meanwhile, bridges marked as deficient are still used for travel. In fact, 188 million trips were made across structurally unsound bridges in 2016, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Bridges, which degrade from weather, chemicals, and repeated travel, also break down because of low-quality materials used in their initial construction. Age is a particularly significant factor for bridges: most are designed to last between 50 to 100 years, and nearly four out of 10 bridges in the U.S. are now 50 years or older.
How bridges and roads are inspected
Inspections of roads and bridges confirm the urgent need for repairs and maintenance. Commercial divers often inspect bridges, because wear and tear occurs beneath the water’s surface as well as above it. Divers look for erosion from sand and sediment, along with cracks from stress or signs of an eventual break. However, this method can be expensive and ineffective due to limited visibility and concerns about safety and security.
New technology, such as acoustic imaging and remotely operated vehicles, helps divers focus their efforts. The sonar technology of underwater drones also alerts teams to potential obstructions or dangers divers might otherwise miss due to poor visibility.
Drones can also provide live video feeds, allowing crews to assess and analyze visuals, which divers can use as a reference. Teams can then order any necessary parts or materials to start repairs more quickly and effectively. Underwater drones can also assist during repairs, providing workers on land with a live video stream to monitor the dive team’s safety and progress.
Road inspections are often completed with machine testing and computer-analyzed video of roadways. Computers analyzing these videos log cracks and surface wear to develop pavement condition reports, which workers can compare to previous years. Machines such as miniature trailers are used to test a road’s friction, smoothness, and pavement structure. Some travelers notice factors such as road smoothness and friction, or how much their tires are sticking to the pavement.
Pavement structure is an important test because it shows if a road can handle the weight and volume of its daily traffic. When the structure fails, it can cause potholes. Machine testing contributes to computer-analyzed databases offering information about specific areas prone to wear.
Inspections and technology are crucial to developing maintenance and repair plans for bridges and roads throughout the U.S., but how to fund these repairs is an unanswered question.
How will state and federal governments replace bridges and roads?
Federal and state governments’ primary source of funding to replace and repair U.S. bridges and roads is, of course, taxes. The federal gas tax, which was passed in 1932, was designed to fund the maintenance, repair, and construction of U.S. infrastructure. Fast-forward 85 years, and lawmakers have increased this tax only 10 times. Today, the federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon, and its last increase was more than 20 years ago. Rhode Island and at least 17 other states, however, have begun to increase their taxes to support infrastructure.
Private investment is another possible solution to address crumbling U.S. bridges and roads, an option that is being considered by the Trump Administration. Building America’s Future, a bipartisan coalition, is directed toward earning infrastructure investments from outside sources, as tolls are not an option for all of America’s bridges and roads.
How the U.S. government will proceed with repairs to bridges and roads is still to be determined. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the cost of repairing U.S. roads and bridges at $836 billion and $123 billion, respectively. And that cost will only increase, as strained budgets continue to prevent regular preventative maintenance that could have helped prevent the country’s current infrastructure crisis in the first place.
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