Apr 25, 2024 - News

U.S. 50 bridge failure shows fragile state of Colorado infrastructure

Data: National Bridge Inventory; Map: Thomas Oide/Axios

Each day in Colorado, an average of 281,000 vehicles travel on bridges in "poor" condition, a new Axios analysis finds.

Why it matters: Last week's closure of a critical bridge over the Blue Mesa reservoir β€” along with the bridge collapse in Baltimore last month β€” is directing attention to the state of America's infrastructure.

Threat level: Colorado counts 32 bridges in "poor" condition and is directing millions a year toward their repair, faring better than most states, our analysis of the National Bridge Inventory found.

  • That's a fraction of the 3,000-plus bridges the Colorado Department of Transportation oversees.
  • But roughly 60% are in "fair" condition, just a measure better and at risk of further deterioration, according to federal data.
  • 35% of the state's bridges are rated "good."

Zoom in: The U.S. 50 bridge that closed at the reservoir was listed as "fair" in the federal data and wasn't on a separate list for state repairs. But a recent safety inspection found a 3-inch crack developed in a steel support beam.

  • The timeline for reopening is unclear and the state transportation department is vowing to give it all resources possible.
  • The detour is so long that students are taking a boat across the reservoir to get to class.

Between the lines: Colorado's dedicated money for bridge repair comes from a series of fees on motorists dating back to the 2009 FASTER program. The effort received an additional boost from fees on delivery services put in place in 2021, agency reports show.

  • The bridge repair account is $159 million, or about 8% of the transportation department's budget.
  • This year's state budget will infuse an additional $5.8 million.
Share of bridges in poor condition, 2023
Data: Federal Highway Administration; Map: Will Chase and Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Yes, but: Even as the money grows, so does the problem. 162 structures are in the queue for repairs, agency documents show, which is the most in at least six years.

  • Another 33 structures are in design phases while 33 are currently under construction.

How it works: A bridge in "poor" condition is not at risk of imminent collapse. The National Bridge Inventory has three grades below poor which indicate structural issues may necessitate bridge closures.

  • Few bridges are currently rated in "serious" or "critical" condition. Bridges that reach those levels are typically fixed or closed.

By the numbers: The average year of the "poor" bridges built in Colorado is 1953, and the vast majority have been labeled as such for more than 10 years.

  • The county with the worst bridges is El Paso, the state's largest, with six in "poor" condition. Adams, Eagle, Larimer and Park counties all have three, the latest data shows.
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