Neglected interstate bridges seek billions in infrastructure funds

The bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law last year is likely to infuse billions of dollars into bridges that cross state lines, some of the most neglected and most heavily-used arteries in the nation.
The Brent Spence Bridge, one of the busiest arterials in the nation, connects Cincinnati with Northern Kentucky. (Photo credit: Antony-22 via Wikimedia Commons)

The bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law last year is likely to infuse billions of dollars into bridges that cross state lines, some of the most neglected and most heavily-used arteries in the nation.

At least three sets of states are moving to build entirely new cross-border bridges to replace or take pressure off aging infrastructure. 

Those spans include the Brent Spence Bridge, which crosses the Ohio River to connect Cincinnati to Northern Kentucky, which was deemed functionally obsolete — bridge-speak for out-of-date — a quarter century ago.

The 61-year-old Blatnik Bridge connecting Duluth, Minn., and Superior, Wis. is experiencing “significant deterioration” and engineers have warned the bridge could be shut to all traffic by 2030. 

Officials in the Pacific Northwest warn a century-old bridge over the Columbia River that connects Washington and Oregon along Interstate 5 could collapse in an earthquake. 

Long-planned projects to replace each of them have languished for want of cash — a lot of it. 

That began to change in January, when the U.S. Department of Transportation launched a $27 billion Bridge Replacement, Rehabilitation, Preservation, Protection and Construction Program meant to help fix some 15,000 bridges nationwide. It is one of several pools of infrastructure money that are potentially available to big bridge projects. 

Officials in Oregon and Washington have been working together since 2019 on a revived Interstate Bridge replacement plan, after a previous effort failed in 2013. Cost estimates have ballooned from $3.4 billion almost a decade ago to closer to $5 billion today.

Earlier this year, Washington lawmakers earmarked $1 billion for construction of the new bridge. It’s anticipated the Oregon legislature will match that funding in 2023. 

But the states hope federal infrastructure funds will shoulder a significant chunk of the remaining cost. 

“I’m considering this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Oregon state Rep. Susan McLain (D) who chairs the state House Committee on Transportation Policy.

Already, the two states have submitted a placeholder request seeking $750 million in federal Bridge Investment Program dollars. A second request through the USDOT Mega Program is anticipated next year. In addition, the states plan to ask the Federal Transit Authority for $850 million to $1 billion to support light rail components of the project. 

“We have a window of opportunity and we have to make sure are well positioned to attract those dollars and make sure that folks recognize that this is not just a local bridge; this is the only west coast interstate connection between Mexico and Canada,” said Gregory Johnson, program administrator for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program.

This month the Interstate Bridge Replacement program was awarded a $1 million federal planning grant to conduct a ground-improvement study to address the effects of liquefaction from an earthquake.

Seventeen hundred miles to the east, the one-and-a-half mile long Blatnik Bridge crosses over the St. Louis Bay. Opened in 1961, the rusting bridge is more than a decade past its design life and now has load weight restrictions.

President Biden used the bridge as a backdrop as he touted the infrastructure law earlier this year.


In August, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) said their states would seek an initial $890 million in federal infrastructure funds to help pay for a new bridge, about half the total cost of a replacement. 

“We certainly feel that we’ll be very competitive and we’re very hopeful,” said Patrick Huston, an assistant district engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation who’s leading the bridge replacement project.

There is no more ubiquitous poster child for aging infrastructure than the Brent Spence Bridge, rated in 2021 the second-worst truck bottleneck in the nation. 

An upgrade project estimated at $3 billion involves building a second span over the Ohio River, as well as improvements to an eight-mile stretch of interstate on either side of the existing bridge. 

Ohio and Kentucky have asked for $1.66 billion in federal infrastructure funds to kickstart the project. The two states would share the remaining cost.

“This is an opportunity for this region, but also this nation,” said Mark Policinski, CEO of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments.

Competition for the federal infrastructure dollars is likely to be fierce.

“These other large infrastructure projects around the country are lining up for the federal dollars and there’s only so many federal dollars to go around, so if you miss this opportunity I don’t know when you’re going to see these type of funds ever come this way again,” said Johnson, administrator of Oregon and Washington’s interstate bridge program in an interview.

Much of the nation’s transportation infrastructure is in need of rehab or replacement, and bridges are a top concern. An annual infrastructure report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers last year calculated the nation’s bridge repair backlog at $125 billion with 46,000 U.S. bridges in poor condition.