Montana Viewpoint
August 6, 2007

Whatever we might expect from government, keeping us safe is close to the top of the list. By and large we have not only come to expect that, but we often take it for granted, and that’s why tragedies like the collapse of the Interstate bridge in Minneapolis can come as such a shock.

Now, of course, there’s the same flurry of public and governmental concern that follows any preventable tragedy, and it will stay around for as long as it takes for the public to put the issue on the way-back burner. For a while some of us will experience a bit of fear when we cross a bridge that we may have crossed all our lives, but it will disappear in time.

But should it? In 2005, over 26% of the 594,616 bridges in America were “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete” according to the National Bridge Inventory Program of the Federal Highway Administration. That’s down from 31% in 1996, but is it good enough? For Montana in the same year the statistics are lower—20.7% percent of 4922 bridges—but don’t take much comfort from that; in Minnesota the figure was 12.2%.

That doesn’t mean they’re all ready to fall down at once, but it does mean that there is a problem that needs attending to.

One of the issues is that the highway infrastructure is getting older, and in the case of the 51-year-old Interstate system, everything getting old at the same time. That can put a strain on government’s ability to attend to the situation and needed maintenance gets put off because of it. It’s called “deferred maintenance.” Few farmers who have spent the better part of a hot day under a piece of equipment to repair a breakdown that winter maintenance could have prevented forget the self-provided lesson.

Routine maintenance is easy to put off if there is competition for the time or money to do it. In the 1970s the Milwaukee Railroad was so financially strapped that they put off track maintenance so they would have enough money to pay the other bills. It was a bad choice. Trains on the 200-odd miles between Forsyth and Harlowton were restricted to 10 miles an hour, and it took a train a full day and three train crews to cross it. Even at 10 miles an hour the trains still fell over.

The Feds supply almost 90% of the money to build Interstates and other federal highways, but it’s up to the states to maintain them. Besides everything getting old all at once, there are competing pressures to improve the highways and for better—or at least easier—access, such as the planned Custer Avenue Interchange in Helena. If the projected $40 million it will cost to provide easier access to shopping at the Big Box Stores in Helena could just as well be spent on highway maintenance, should it? Well, that depends on where you shop.

Whatever the reasons for deferring maintenance, it costs more to fix the problem with every year that passes. One example is the frost heaves along I-90 near Lookout Pass. I’m told routine cleaning of expansion grooves in the concrete can prevent this, but it’s not done, and as a result the entire roadway needs to be resurfaced at a much higher cost.

In the case of government projects there is one important aspect that can’t be overlooked, and that’s us citizens. What we expect from government should be commensurate with what we want to pay for it. We shouldn’t expect a governmental agency with increasing costs and decreasing resources to meet them to get everything done.

But whatever their resources, we should be able to expect that preventive and routine maintenance be done before new projects are started.


Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620