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Editor’s note/update: This post originally ran June 19, 2015, but the Memorial Bridge remains in major disrepair. Officials, who are pushing for more funding, toured the bridge a year later, June 20, 2016, the Associated Press reports. They say the bridge “could shut down by 2021 without a $250 million overhaul. WTOP reports that the officials want Congress to pump up to $150 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s FASTLANE program into the bridge’s reconstruction.”
During a normal week, David Glazier's drivers cross the Memorial Bridge into and out of the nation's capital hundreds of times. But these aren't normal weeks.
The Memorial Bridge — which connects the District of Columbia to Northern Virginia, where Glazier's luxury car service company is based — is failing. In May , federal officials closed two of the bridge's six lanes after inspections revealed that the 83-year-old bridge’s support beams are now corroding faster than expected and “no longer meet load-bearing standards.” In addition, officials closed the bridge entirely to vehicles weighing more than ten tons, including all buses.
For the country, a rapidly deteriorating landmark at the gates of the nation’s capital is an embarrassment. For many Washington area commuters, already accustomed to the Beltway’s brand of infamously dense congestion, it’s yet another traffic jam on the way to work.
But for local business owners like Glazier, it’s an even more serious problem.
“We use that bridge all the time, basically for any pickup or drop-off that’s on the west side of D.C.,” said Glazier, who with his wife owns Fleet Transportation in Alexandria, Virginia. Started in 2000, their company now employs 35 employees from around the Washington area.
“Suddenly, 50 percent of our fleet isn’t allowed to cross that bridge,” Glazier said.
For a company like Fleet Transportation, that translates into more than an inconvenience. Glazier must now reroute all of his 24-person and 36-person minibuses, which exceed the weight limit, to other out-of-the-way and increasingly congested bridges.
“It’s more time, more labor costs, and more fuel costs,” said Glazier, who started his own firm after working for another ground transportation company. “Overall, it’s a significant disruption.”
It’s a problem that may have been avoided with routine repairs and upgrades, rather than waiting until the bridge could no longer hold large vehicles and required sudden emergency closures.
And that’s where long-term infrastructure investments — or the lack thereof — come into play.
The Memorial Bridge is hardly an anomaly. It’s one of 14 bridges in the D.C. area that has been deemed “structurally deficient,” which means that they have been allowed to deteriorate to the point where they suffer from “major deterioration, cracks, or other deficiencies in their decks, structure, or foundations.” Nationwide, there are now more than 61,000 bridges that bear that dubious distinction, which has resulted in a backlog of more than $115 billion in much-needed bridge repairs, Department of Transportation data show.
Still, the Memorial Bridge — which the National Park Service says was meant to symbolize “the strength of a united nation” — stands out as a particularly troubling example of the larger problem.
As Glazier put it: “If somebody isn’t watching over the one on the doorstep of the nation’s capital, what’s going on across the rest of the country?”
There’s some good news. The National Park Service, which oversees Memorial Bridge, closed the two lanes and parts of the sidewalk in order to make minor repairs to some of the structure’s corroded beams. Those two lanes are expected to reopen sometime early next year.
Then there’s the bad news — mainly, that there’s no end in sight for the weight restriction preventing half of Glazier’s fleet from using the bridge. Officials don’t plan to lift that restriction until the Memorial Bridge undergoes a full rehabilitation. And that could be a while.
D.C. officials have estimated that a complete rehabilitation would cost roughly $250 million, which is more than the federal park service receives annually for all transportation projects across the country. It’s evidence, experts say, of a crippling shortage of infrastructure funding that is paralyzing much of the nation’s ground transportation network.
“Though America has one of the best [transportation] systems in the world, it is aging and in need of repair,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue wrote last month in a blog post. In terms of wasted time, wasted fuel and soaring repair costs, Donohue added that “the costs of disrepair in our system are high.”
And yet, Congress doesn’t appear to be taking the problem seriously. In May, federal lawmakers approved a short-term extension to replenish the nearly barren Highway Trust Fund, which helps finance critical infrastructure projects like the much-needed Memorial Bridge repairs. In fact, the Highway Trust Fund is currently the source of more than half of all highway and bridge capital investments made annually by state governments.
However, Congress’s recent accord merely replenished the fund for two months. Without further action, it will run dry at the end of July, and projects will grind to a halt.
“This piecemeal approach has a very real impact on the American economy," Rep. Nydia Velazquez, the ranking Democrat on the House Small Business Committee, said during a recent hearing, later directing attention to a study showing that the absence of a long-term transportation funding deal has cost the U.S. economy more than 900,000 jobs.
In a recent letter to members of the House of Representatives, Bruce Josten, the U.S. Chamber’s executive vice president of government affairs, added that without a long-term deal “companies cannot plan for hiring or capital expenditures… and opportunities for economic development and economic growth are lost.”
Naturally, the most important question surrounding the nearly depleted Highway Trust Fund is how to come up with additional money. One of the most widely supported solutions is a modest bump in the federal gas tax — essentially, a user fee — which hasn’t increased in more than two decades.
Of course, higher prices at the pump would add to fuel costs for companies like Glazier’s — but in this instance, he says that’s a relatively small price to pay for safe and reliable roads and bridges. So long as fuel taxes don’t suddenly spike 30 or 40 cents, he specified, “incremental increases over a period of time, every year or every couple years, wouldn't bother me.”
It’s the type of long-term solution he expects out of his representatives in Congress, who so often pledge to stand up for America’s small businesses.
“I’m sitting here day in and day out doing what I have to do to satisfy my customers’ needs, and I have the expectation that policymakers and elected officials are doing the same thing for us,” Glazier said. “Obviously, in this instance, they have failed.”