has been essentially flat, even as the state’s need for transportation has exploded.
That’s why we have so many toll roads now — to meet that need — and also why the Legislature in 2013 and 2015 (backed up by public votes thereafter) voted to redirect some existing taxes (not the gas tax) to the Texas Department of Transportation. No new revenue there, just shuffled deck chairs fiscally.
But Texas bridges, despite the functionally flat gas tax revenue for most of the past decade, have done pretty well.
According to the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, put out by the American Society of Civil Engineers, 9.1 percent of the almost 615,000 bridges in the United States were rated “structurally deficient.” That ranking doesn’t mean those bridges are necessarily unsafe to drive on or about to fall down — although the Minnesota bridge that collapsed did have that designation — but that they fail to meet a standard and should be repaired or replaced.
That figure has been improving nationally: In 2007, 12.3 percent of U.S. bridges were structurally deficient.
Texas has been ahead of the curve throughout the past decade, ranking second-best currently by percentage of structurally deficient bridges in that engineer society report, with 1.7 percent. In the worst state, Rhode Island, almost a quarter of the bridges were rated structurally deficient in 2016.
And a recent TxDOT report says the situation with Texas’ 53,500 bridges is even better than the national study would indicate. Because traffic varies from bridge to bridge, and the newer bridges (including freeway flyovers) tend to get much heavier traffic, just 0.5 percent of daily traffic in Texas drives on a structurally deficient bridge.
The TxDOT report says the number of Texas bridges with that rating has declined from 2,152 in 2006 to 856 as of last September. Of those, 133 are recommended for closure, but 115 are so-called “off-system” bridges belonging to cities, counties or private owners rather being part of TxDOT’s state system of roads.
The department budgeted almost $200 million in 2016 specifically for replacing bridges, part of an ongoing commitment of dollars for that purpose.
In the 11-county Austin district of TxDOT, nine “on-system” bridges are structurally deficient, including two in Travis County and one each in Williamson and Bastrop counties, according to the 2016 TxDOT report. Hays County had none with that rating.
But Diann Hodges, a spokeswoman for TxDOT’s Austin district, said three of those bridges have been replaced, two are closed to traffic (on I-35 at East 51st Street) and three have a problem with frequent flooding rather than having structural problems.
Only one bridge, on FM 112 in Williamson County, has genuine structural defects, Hodges said in an email.
At least one problem bridge locally from 2007, when that Minnesota tragedy occurred, is no longer a problem. At the time, TxDOT acknowledged that the FM 973 bridge over the Colorado River near Hornsby Bend was structurally deficient and had worrisome cracking in its undergirding.
A wider bridge was built and opened several months ago.
As for that gas tax thing and the Legislature, well, there’s no bridge strong enough for that one.
A truck traverses the recently completed bridge on FM 973 north of the Texas 71 intersection near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. TxDOT flagged the previous span as structurally deficient a decade ago.