Connecticut has more than 200 bridges in poor condition. What will it take to fix them?
Most bridges in the state are beyond their intended lifespan. It will cost millions to repair or replace them.
New federal funding will speed up repairs on Connecticut's longest bridge, but the project represents only a small share of the state's outstanding infrastructure needs.
The Federal Highway Administration recently awarded Connecticut $158 million to repair the Gold Star Memorial Bridge between New London and Groton.
The funding comes via a new bridge investment program created under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in November 2021. The grant will help the state make structural repairs and increase the bridge's load capacity.
But other worthwhile projects are pending. Across the state, there are 225 bridges rated as being in poor condition — about 5% of all Connecticut bridges tracked in the Federal Highway Administration's National Bridge Inventory.
Connecticut isn't an outlier in its share of bridges in bad shape. Nationwide, the number of bridges in poor condition has generally declined, though around 44,000, or roughly 7%, are still rated as poor.
Many more are flagged as needing work. About one-third of all bridges nationwide need repair or replacement, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.
The association estimates the cost of necessary bridge maintenance in Connecticut alone stands at roughly $1.7 billion.
According to the state's most recent Highway Transportation Asset Management Plan, Connecticut would need to invest about $900 million more each year to meet its state of good repair benchmark for bridges.
The state aims to ensure that each bridge's deck, superstructure and substructure receive a numerical rating of 5 or better on a nine-point scale, which is the threshold to be deemed in fair condition.
When it comes to paying for these repairs, Rocky Moretti, the director of policy and research for TRIP (a national transportation research nonprofit), says it needs to be a group effort.
Most bridge projects receive a federal cost share of up to 80%, according to a report published by the Congressional Research Service. The number rises to 90% for interstate highways.
"The federal government has certainly increased their support in Connecticut, but that will also need to be matched by increased investment at the state and also local level," Moretti said.
When bridges are first deemed in poor condition, they don't necessarily pose an immediate safety concern. To prevent issues, a bridge might be closed or restricted to lighter-weight vehicles.
Some linger in that condition for years. Many are located in rural areas and are lightly used. The Accountability Project's analysis found nine bridges in Connecticut that were listed in poor condition for each of the last 30 years, dating back to 1993.
Most bridges in the state are beyond their intended lifespan. More than two-thirds of those maintained by the Connecticut Department of Transportation are now at least 50 years old, with the largest number built between 1960 and 1969, according to information available from the state.
The Department of Transportation didn't respond to requests for comment on its bridge maintenance program. It has previously cited progress reducing the number of bridges in the state that are in bad shape, bringing the number in poor condition down from more than 300 several years ago.
Arash Zaghi, associate professor of engineering at UConn, said ongoing maintenance amounts to patching an old system. The state fixes some bridges, and others deteriorate.
"It's not going to get better," Zaghi said. "It's not going to go away. It's always a catch-up game."
Connecticut faces issues that are unique to the Northeast. The de-icing salts used on roads and bridges during the winter are highly corrosive and can lead to infrastructure damage.
Kay Willie, professor of engineering at UConn who works alongside Zaghi, said there are other materials being introduced that can extend the service life of a bridge and are more sustainable.
"If it lasts, we're not talking about just 50 years. We might be talking about 100 or 500 years, and this becomes a significant cost savings," Willie said.
Zaghi and Willie are working with the state to research these methods and educating other states on these innovations.
EDITOR'S NOTE (1/17/2023):
The Connecticut Department of Transportation notes that of the nine bridges that have been in poor condition for 30 years, two of the state-owned structures had recent construction projects, two of the municipal bridges are under design and one privately maintained bridge is undergoing active planning. The remaining four bridges are municipally owned and maintained.