What Recent Bridge Closures Reveal About Our Transportation Infrastructure

CSSH/CEE Associate Professor Serena Alexander explains the importance of a resilient transportation system amidst the many recent bridge closures. She says that the infrastructure needs to be more accessible while many of these bridges undergo repairs.

This article originally appeared on Northeastern Global News. It was published by Erin Kayata. Main photo: A bridge in Connecticut was destroyed in a fire and caused major traffic. How can our infrastructure improve to avoid these jams in an emergency? (Kevin Coughlin / All Island Aerial via AP)

One-third of bridges in the United States need fixing. Here’s how to do that without wreaking havoc on supply chains and commuters

When the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed in Baltimore, it was a disaster not only for the sheer amount of destruction, but because the accident prevented access to one of the busiest ports in the U.S.

It was a similar scenario in Rhode Island when the Washington Bridge was shut down suddenly in December due to structural deficiencies. The closure not only caused traffic delays, but heavily impacted local businesses. In Connecticut, a recent highway fire destroyed a bridge which led to temporary local schools closures due to the subsequent traffic. 

Whether it’s a closure from an accident or repairs, bridge shutdowns can cause a lot of issues for communities, and these traffic and economic headaches may be a preview of what’s to come. Over a third of bridges in the United States need some kind of major repair or replacement, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

This means our infrastructure needs to become more resilient to deal with closures, said Serena Alexander, an associate professor in civil and environmental engineering and public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University.

Alexander said recent investments in bridge and road maintenance — and transportation infrastructure — have helped, but there’s still much work to be done.

“If you look at the numbers in recent years, you will see that the nation’s share of bridges that are generally in poor condition is slowly improving,” Alexander said. “But that said, we have so many old bridges and there needs to be a lot more of it to make a dent in kind of to get our transportation infrastructure into the state of good repair.”

Serena Alexander, associate professor with a joint appointment in the schools of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Public Policy and Urban Affairs, said our national infrastructure needs to become more resilient. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

However, the country tends to avoid spending on maintenance, said Stephen Flynn, a professor of political science and founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University.

Flynn said that many small states, like Rhode Island, were able to build their current infrastructure under the New Deal — the 1930s public works program — but they haven’t had the financial resources to maintain it.

The costs to make these fixes aren’t small. The estimated cost to replace the Washington Bridge is now at $400 million, while the estimated price to rebuild the Frances Scott Key Bridge is between $1.7 billion and $1.9 billion. Connecticut will pay an estimated $20 million to replace the bridge lost in a fiery highway crash.

Outside these accidents, ARBTA estimated in its 2023 report on the state of the nation’s bridges that it would take over $319 billion to make needed repairs to other structures throughout the country. They further reported that states have committed $3.2 billion of funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to these repairs.

“We’re like a generation who inherited our grandparents’ mansion and we’ve refused to do the upkeep,” Flynn said. “People drive by thinking it’s a nice house, but the roof is leaking and the power and plumbing don’t work. For almost four decades, we’ve basically been approaching maintaining infrastructure like it was on life support instead of making the kinds of investments required to keep it functioning and adapting to the demands that we increasingly put on it.”

According to Alexander, the country needs a resilient transportation system that can not only absorb disturbances, like closures, and bounce back to its original state of functioning quickly, but one that can also withstand future problems. However, she said much of the country’s infrastructure is built for efficiency, which means it can be more prone to collapse due to a lack of alternate routes in case one point of access fails.

Read full story at Northeastern Global News

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering