My memories of driving across the Sagamore Bridge linking Cape Cod to the rest of Massachusetts date back to my childhood. When I was little, the bridge was a sign I was almost home. Years later, the sign on the Sagamore, “Sagamore Bridge 1933–1935,” made me wonder how on earth it was possible to build that bridge from start to finish in just two years. But now, studying the sorry state of bridges across the United States these days and knowing that 7.5 percent of the nation’s bridges are rated “structurally deficient,” meaning they are in “poor” condition, I worry each time I drive over my bridge how long until the beautiful eighty seven year old Sagamore collapses into the Cape Cod Canal’s icy water far below. I know it gets repaired and patched up from time to time. But the people crossing the bridge in Pittsburgh yesterday likely thought the same with no idea their bridge would collapse.
The data and life span estimates for bridges across the country are well known. The American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) regularly reports on the soundness of American bridges, while the Federal Highway Administration estimates the cost to repair or replace them at around $125 billion. These are not hidden deficiencies. They are hiding in plain sight. There is no excuse to worry that the next time we cross our bridges it might be the last.
I spent many years touting the economic benefits of smart investment in infrastructure to drive competitiveness, productivity, efficiency, connectivity, resilience, and jobs. The Pittsburgh bridge collapse reminds us again that infrastructure investment is also vital for safety.
Just as many Pittsburgh residents were likely unaware of their bridge’s poor state, I recently learned that my Sagamore Bridge is one of those bridges found to be structurally deficient. The time is long passed for these bridges to be replaced and we should all rejoice that funding is finally available through the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
Passing the bipartisan IIJA last year was a tremendous victory. President Biden declared in November that the IIJA will be the single largest investment in repairing and reconstructing our nation’s bridges since the construction of the interstate highway system, including both economically significant bridges as well as thousands of smaller ones. It was, however, just the end of the beginning. Now the work begins for federal, state, and local governments to cooperate on getting it done. Avoiding petty fights over the details of implementation will be key to unlocking and efficiently deploying these funds over the next five years to fix the nation’s many failing bridges.
The bridge that collapsed in Pittsburgh was not particularly significant. It was a normal city bridge, part of the daily commute. Thankfully no one died. President Biden reflected yesterday that “there are another 3,300 bridges here in Pennsylvania, some of which are just as old and in just as decrepit condition as that bridge was [and promising] … to rebuild that bridge, along with thousands of other bridges in Pennsylvania and across the country.”
The same day Pittsburgh’s bridge collapsed, the Massachusetts congressional delegation spoke about securing IIJA funding for the Sagamore Bridge, federally owned but requiring a joint action plan with the state of Massachusetts to be replaced. In this case, federal, state, and local governments are already coordinating to access and deploy IIJA funding. Bravo. This same urgency of coordination should happen across the country.
I will drive from Boston to Cape Cod and across the Sagamore Bridge again next week and think of the people on the Pittsburgh bridge who took an unexpected plunge into the ravine on January 28, 2022. There is no time to rest on laurels of simply passing the legislation. State and local officials need to ensure these funds will be effectively and speedily deployed before we lose other bridges and the people who depend on them. The investment cannot come soon enough.