Last week's bridge collapse in Minneapolis was a terrifying reminder that bridges that have supported heavy traffic for years or even decades can buckle with little warning. But the fact is, the threat has been evident for some time, and the real question is whether state and federal governments have the will to act.
Federal officials reported last week that more than one in four of the nation's 600,000 federally funded bridges is rated "structurally deficient" -- as the Minneapolis bridge was -- or "functionally obsolete." While that does not mean all these bridges are in danger of imminent collapse, all show structural problems or can't safely support existing traffic volumes.
Of South Carolina's 9,202 bridges, 1,274 have been judged structurally deficient, while 827 are obsolete, according to the National Bridge Inventory compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation. York County has six bridges that are rated obsolete and four rated deficient.
State transportation officials have estimated that bringing the state's bridges up to standard would cost $2.9 billion over 20 years, or $145 million a year for the next two decades. While the need is obvious, state lawmakers have been reluctant to set aside adequate money for bridge upgrades or, for that matter, highway maintenance of any kind.
The newly appointed head of the state Department of Transportation, Buck Limehouse, said Friday after being confirmed that increases in state and national fuel taxes probably will be necessary to pay for bridge maintenance and other road work. He noted, however, that the state already is pumping $100 million a year into bridge maintenance, so making up the difference should not be too daunting.
The state now relies on a 16-cent-a-gallon fuel tax that hasn't increased in 18 years. Limehouse and some legislative leaders believe the state should remove the sales tax exemption on gasoline that prevents the tax from rising with inflation as the cost of gasoline rises.
Gov. Mark Sanford, who appointed Limehouse, also supports eliminating the exemption, but wants the tax increase offset by lowering the state's income taxes. But that fails to address the need for new revenues to do repairs and keep up with needed maintenance. A rise in the gasoline tax or other motorist user fees could provide the needed money.
We understand, to some degree, the reluctance to hand money over to a DOT that has done little to inspire confidence that it spends money wisely or where it is needed. Despite the need for overhauling the department and making it more accountable to the governor, lawmakers this year resorted to half-baked reforms, making the DOT head a cabinet post but retaining an unwieldy governing board that continues to report to the Legislature.
But the state can't afford to ignore the problem of risky bridges for long. We hope it won't require a bridge crashing down during rush hour to wake up state lawmakers to this need.
South Carolina has hundreds of bridges that are in need of maintenance or replacement.
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