Lesson from a bridge

Once again the United States has received a sharp reminder of the urgent need to put its facilities in good repair. This time it is the collapse of a Connecticut bridge, with three fatalities, which focuses attention on the issue. In recent years it had been the collapse or serious weakening of earthen dams, and the severe deterioration of cities' subterranean infrastructure - such as sewer, water, and electric lines.

No one knows what the total costs would be to restore the nation's infrastructure. Latest estimates for repairing just the nation's bridges run as high as $50 billion, according to the Department of Transportation.

One point all agree on: The old adage of ''a stitch in time saves nine'' applies. Experts say that physical deterioration - whether bridges, highways, or elsewhere - invariably is slow at first and would be relatively inexpensive to arrest. But after years without maintenance or repair, deterioration escalates - and instead of merely resurfacing and slightly strengthening a bridge, a state must build a new one. Result: unnecessarily high costs - borne by taxpayers.

Unfortunately that's what has been happening. However, there has been a welcome if insufficient increase in both federal and state funds this year for maintenance and repair of bridges and highways.

Last year the federal government provided approximately $8.5 billion - including both repair and new construction - and states added $35 billion. This year, as the result of higher road user fees on trucks and an increased gasoline tax, Washington is making available $12.5 billion. This funding is for the entire federal highway-assisted program - interstates, primary and secondary roads, urban roadways, and bridges.

Of this money, last year Washington provided $900 million for bridge repair and maintenance; this year it will be $1.6 billion.

But even when states add their own funds it will not go far toward solving the problem. Transportation specialists estimate, for instance, that approximately $18 billion is needed immediately to repair the deteriorating interstate highway system, of which the Connecticut bridge was a part.

A major problem is the way money is allocated: It is far easier to get agreement to spend money to build new roads and bridges than to repair existing ones. This parallels the experience of every university administrator: money can be raised to erect new buildings - but not to maintain old ones.

UF Very much needed is a shift in public - and political - priorities toward support for maintaining the structural facilities the nation has, rather than waiting until far more money is needed to repair unnecessarily severe problems.

In the case of bridges, good repair is essential for safety.

On a more mundane level, repair of bridges and highways is necessary to keep the nation's economy moving, inasmuch as so much of the country's goods are shipped to market via the $12 billion-a-year American trucking industry.

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