Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says America’s roads and bridges are “crumbling.” The administration’s infrastructure plan says, “After decades of disinvestment, our roads, bridges, and water systems are crumbling,” and it notes that 45,000 bridges are in “poor condition.”
The Washington Post says, “President Biden aims to tackle some of the nation’s most pressing problems—from climate change to decaying water systems to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure,” and it claims that “the nation’s infrastructure woes … have been growing for decades.”
Rolling Stone says Biden’s plan “promises to revitalize 20,000 miles of roads and fix 10,000 crumbling bridges.” A 2018 NBC report was titled, “More than 50,000 American bridges are falling apart,” and pointed to 54,259 bridges that are “structurally deficient.”
What the politicians and news stories don’t tell you is that America’s bridges have been steadily improving for three decades. The Federal Highway Administration produces annual data on the condition of the nation’s more than 600,000 highway bridges. From 1992 to 2017, the agency has data on the number of bridges that are “structurally deficient.” Then the agency switched to new definitions and has data from 2009 to 2020 on the number in “poor” condition.
The chart shows both types of bridges as a percent of total U.S. bridges. The structurally deficient share fell from 21.7 percent in 1992 to 8.9 percent in 2017, while the poor share fell from 10.1 percent in 2009 to 7.3 percent in 2020. Biden’s 45,000 bridges and NBC’s 54,259 bridges are correct figures, but they miss the crucial context of these dramatic improvements.
Not every news story sounds like a press release from a construction lobby group. A 2018 Reuters investigation found that an “analysis of nationwide bridge data reveals the fretting over the safety of bridges and other road infrastructure is overblown.” The article noted that “structurally deficient” bridges need repairs but would be closed if they were actually dangerous. It also noted that America’s roads and bridges compare quite favorably to those in other advanced economies.