OUR OPINION: Bridge maintenance rises as state, national problem

Mississippians take for granted the safety of the roads and bridges on which they travel, often with daily use, and the need for replacements, upgrades and reconstruction aren’t always readily apparent.

Thousands of structures, however, are deficient, and Mississippians travel across them an average of 1.2 million times per day.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation, which maintains 29,000 miles of highways and more than 5,000 bridges, has been unable to persuade the Legislature of its urgent need to spend substantially on replacing thousands of bridges already labeled for some kind of deficiency. Many of the bridges, not to mention roadways, are simply wearing out from age and use.

It’s instructive to remember that the state’s landmark four-lane highway program was enacted 27 years ago. Some of the surfaces and bridges in that system of corridor roads are worn out. Even more replacements are needed for many other highways and bridges.

MDOT on Monday released a summary of information from a nationwide study, a report of the 2013 National Bridge Inventory showing 13 percent of more than 5,000 bridges maintained by MDOT need replacement.

Our state is ranked 10th nationally in the number of structurally deficient bridges and 14th in all kinds of deficient bridges.

The release notes MDOT’s maintenance expenditures: $450 million annually in routine roadway maintenance projects on 135 miles of roadway, sealed on 674 lane miles, reshaping 5,740 miles of unpaved shoulders, applying 3,184 miles of striping, mowing 298,320 acres of right-of-way grass, and removing 9,259 cubic yards of litter.

MDOT allotted more than $64 million to fund the replacement of 14 structurally deficient bridges across the state, another $3.6 million was used on routine bridge maintenance and $1.1 million was spent on bridge repairs due to vehicle crashes.

MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath said, “All of the state’s roads and bridges that were constructed as a result of the 1987 four-lane highway program have a shelf life. With the current level of funding for roadway and bridge maintenance, conditions will get worse before they get better.”

MDOT has not endorsed a particular fix, but the release notes that Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx will submit legislation calling for $302 billion in federal spending.

It’s possible some of the proposed fixes will include tax reforms, which usually mean some kind of tax increase in some way, and given the situation, that may be necessary.

The news release doesn’t propose specific solutions, but it offers a reminder that the continued playing of games about spending on bridges and highways is folly and invites serious consequences.