U.S. Bridges Under Scrutiny

New York's Tappan Zee Bridge is one of the hundreds of thousands of bridges to receive renovations over the past year, in the aftermath of the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis. That collapse served as a wake-up call for inspectors, but legislators say billions of dollars are still needed to repair America's bridges.

Some of America's bridges are thought to be works of art. Take, for example, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco or the Brooklyn Bridge in New York.

But other bridges are considered possible danger zones. They are old and poorly maintained, leading these massive structures of steel, concrete and cable to fall apart. It's believed nearly one in four of this country's 600,000 bridges are in need of repairs.

Last year's bridge collapse in Minneapolis proved the accelerated state of disrepair among U.S. bridges. Thirteen people died when the bridge, which had been tagged in 1990 as structurally deficient, collapsed during rush hour on Aug. 1, 2007.

"The collapse of I-35W shocked the bridge engineers of this country," said Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. "But in the last four years, states have shifted $5 billion out of their bridge account to other needs and now suddenly they realize they've been making a mistake."

Across the country, every state in the nation has bridge problems, with Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Iowa having the most problems.

"People need to depend on their bridges," said Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit that seeks to foster responsible use of land.

"I think the reason we can't keep our upkeep of bridges is its lack of vision, lack of leadership and lack of investment," he said.

New bridges, such as the one being built to replace the 1-35W bridge in Minneapolis, are supposed to be equipped with sensors to monitor corrosion, movement and cracking to alert maintenance teams. But these upgrades are very expensive. Fixing all the bridges in the U.S. would cost an estimated $9.4 billion a year for 20 years.

Some believe privatizing bridges and roads could help.

"There is some $400 billion of private capital that is available for investment in the infrastructure," said Jeffrey Paniati, the executive director of the Federal Highway Administration. "We think that we need to look at tapping into that."

But many disagree.

"We need a national system," said Rep. Oberstar. "We need to maintain that national system in the public interest to sustain the mobility and economic productivity of the nation."

The state of the bridges is just one of many factors in a much larger issue.

McMahon listed other recent infrastructure failures. "The bridge collapse in Minnesota, the steam pipe explosion in Manhattan, the levy collapse in New Orleans are all symptomatic of a much larger problem which is essentially a lack of investment in infrastructure in general."