Better Targeting of Federal Funds Needed To Eliminate Unsafe Bridges

CED-81-126: Published: Aug 11, 1981. Publicly Released: Aug 17, 1981.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Oliver W. Krueger
(202) 275-4914
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

In response to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the National Bridge Inspection Program and the Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program and found that almost 4 out of every 10 bridges in the United States are deficient, and almost one-fifth of U.S. bridges are structurally weak or unsound and must be closed, restricted to lighter vehicles, or immediately rehabilitated to prevent further deterioration or collapse. The Federal Government has become the major source of funds, particularly through the Federal bridge programs, to replace or rehabilitate deficient bridges, and many State and local governments depend heavily on these funds. Under the bridge programs, the Federal Government contributes up to 80 percent of replacement or rehabilitation costs, and State and/or local governments provide the rest.

At current funding levels, it will take years to eliminate the deficient bridges already identified. In view of the size of the bridge problem and the limited amount of funds available, it is essential that program funds be used for bridges most in need. However, GAO found that: (1) the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) project eligibility criteria do not concentrate on bridges in the worst condition and most in need; (2) many worthy projects are funded, but bridges most in need are not always selected; and (3) funds have been apportioned to the States based on incomplete needs data. The major aspect of the National Bridge Inspection Program is that State and/or local governments maintain a bridge inventory and comply with inspection standards. GAO found that State and local governments have made progress since the program's start, but they are not fully complying with the standards. For example: (1) some inspectors do not meet the minimum qualifications for training and experience; (2) some State and local governments are not inspecting their bridges at least every 2 years as required by the standards, and some local governments are not inspecting their bridges at all; (3) the initial inventory and inspection of bridges, particularly bridges off the Federal-aid highway system, has not been completed; and (4) structurally weak bridges are not always being properly closed or posted for lower weight limits to protect against bridge collapses. Even if bridges are properly posted or closed, the postings and closings are often ignored by the public.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we determine what steps the Congress has taken, we will provide updated information.

    Matter: Congress should consider allowing the States greater flexibility to address severe off-system bridge problems by using more than 35 percent of the bridge funds for off-system bridges.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we determine what steps the Congress has taken, we will provide updated information.

    Matter: Congress should require Federal agencies that own bridges to comply with the National Bridge Inspection Standards and report bridge data to the national bridge inventory for monitoring by FHWA.

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we determine what steps the Congress has taken, we will provide updated information.

    Matter: Congress should, in future bridge program authorizations, have the Secretary of Transportation use the latest available needs data, including off-system bridges and culverts eligible for the program, to annually revise the allocations to the States.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The agency has considered the recommended action and does not plan to implement it. In total, the impact of the action would not be large; the States that have the most to gain from the recommendation have not complained to FHWA about the action not being taken.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FHWA to develop a reasonable method to establish width data for culverts that are eligible for bridge program funds, but have not been included in the needs data used to establish funding apportionments because the width is not in the national inventory.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FHWA and Congress have considered the recommendation; the specific action recommended has not been implemented nor is it planned. FHWA has informed its staff of the GAO concern and stressed the importance of informally monitoring distribution of bridge funds. Agency officials believe that this action is satisfactory but another review would be required to document any improvement.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FHWA to define "fair and equitable distribution throughout the State" and formally monitor distribution of funds within the States.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No action has been taken nor is any planned to implement the specific recommendation. The FHWA response continues to be one of encouraging the States to select bridges in the most need of replacement or rehabilitation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should require the Administrator of FHWA to revise the project eligibility criteria for the Federal bridge program to concentrate on bridges in the worst condition and most in need of replacement or rehabilitation, but still provide some flexibility for State and local governments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should require the Administrator of FHWA to develop a formal selection process for discretionary projects to properly weigh factors such as sufficiency ratings, costs, and benefits.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FHWA to assess the States' and local governments' compliance with the National Bridge Inspection Standards and develop a strategy for bringing about full compliance. As part of the assessment, the Administrator should determine: (1) whether any of the requirements should be strengthened or lessened; (2) whether FHWA should encourage State Governments to assume authority for off-system inspections; and (3) the need to penalize or take other action against those governments that do not comply.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FHWA to increase efforts to ensure that the national bridge inventory is complete, accurate, and current and that inspection procedures and bridge ratings are consistent. At a minimum, these efforts should include: (1) more FHWA monitoring, including a greater number of FHWA Bridge Division and regional office management reviews; (2) development of a standard for the timely processing of inspection data; and (3) more descriptive and better defined bridge condition rating codes to be used in all of the States.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  7. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The agency has considered the recommendation and has no plans to implement it. The major objection is that the States are responsible for bridge posting and closing and weight enforcement. FHWA views its greater involvement in these areas to be politically unwise. Congress has also considered the recommendation and has not taken any action.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FHWA to specifically consider encouraging States to: (1) give State government agencies the authority for posting and closing of local government bridges; (2) increase weight limit enforcement efforts; (3) increase penalties for violating weight limits and vandalizing posting signs; and (4) establish public information programs to inform the public about the danger of violating bridge weight limitations and removing posting signs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the FHWA Administrator to take appropriate actions to ensure that the national bridge inventory data are accurate and adequate so that FHWA can properly monitor bridge postings and closings.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Sep 14, 2016

Sep 2, 2016

Aug 8, 2016

Jul 28, 2016

Jul 13, 2016

Jul 7, 2016

Jun 24, 2016

Jun 21, 2016

May 26, 2016

Looking for more? Browse all our products here