The only good thing about Thursday night's collapse of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in northwestern Washington is that no one was killed. Bringing back bad memories of the deadly collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis six years ago, Thursday's incident has turned the nation's attention once more to the decaying state of America's bridges and roads. With infrastructure spending having taken a back seat to other budget demands, the American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the nation's overall public infrastructure a grade of D+, estimating that $3.6 trillion in infrastructure spending will be necessary by the end of the decade to make adequate improvements.
As you'd expect, though, the situation is more critical in some places than in others. With help from the ASCE's report, let's look at the six states that have the greatest number of bridges that qualify as structurally deficient and therefore require substantial maintenance, rehabilitation, or replacement, with regular inspections to ensure continuing viability. We'll also look at some of the financial resources those states have to help pay for necessary work.
The 2,779 bridges in Nebraska that are listed as structurally deficient represent just over 18% of its total number of bridges, and 1,058 bridges are considered to be functionally obsolete. Yet the $23.1 million that the state received from the Federal Highway Bridge Fund in 2011 represents only $8,300 per bridge, indicating the lack of funding to help states make a serious effort at making improvements. With a gasoline tax of $0.255 per gallon, according to figures from the Tax Foundation, Nebraska ranks right around the middle of the pack nationally. Neighboring Kansas just missed the list, with 2,658 structurally deficient bridges.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about California's appearance on this list is that it doesn't rank higher, given the number of total bridges it has statewide. With 2,978 bridges considered structurally deficient, California has 12% of its bridges at risk. Yet perhaps more troubling is that a greater number -- 4,178 -- are functionally obsolete. California gets a lot more in federal funding, with $429.3 million in 2011, amounting to $144,000 per deficient bridge. Moreover, its gasoline tax of $0.487 per gallon is the second-highest in the nation.
Getting back to the theme of Midwestern farm states, 14.5% of Missouri's 24,334 bridges, or 3,528, aren't in good enough condition to escape being structurally deficient. With federal funding of $110.4 million in 2011, Missouri gets about $31,000 for each deficient bridge, while gasoline taxes of $0.173 per gallon are the sixth lowest in the country. Also troubling is that almost as many bridges in Missouri are functionally obsolete.
Moving northward in the Farm Belt, Iowa has a huge proportion of its bridges suffering structural deficiencies, with 21.2% of its overall count amounting to 5,193 problem bridges. With only $56 million in funding from the Federal Highway Bridge Fund, Iowa gets less than $11,000 for each deficient bridge. Moreover, its gasoline tax of $0.22 per gallon put it in the bottom 20 of all states.
Out of 23,781 overall bridges in Oklahoma, 22.6%, or 5,382, fall into the structurally deficient category. With the state already having faced a recent disaster from a deadly tornado in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, the last thing the state needs is a bridge disaster. Yet with only $69.7 million in federal highway bridge, the state has less than $13,000 per bridge to figure out how to prioritize repairs. Moreover, the state's gasoline tax doesn't provide much revenue, with per-gallon taxes of $0.17 landing the state among the bottom five in the nation.
Topping the list is Pennsylvania, with 5,540 structurally deficient bridges, or 24.4% of its total bridge inventory. With $429.3 million in federal funds supporting bridges, the state is better off than many of its peers on the list, with nearly $80,000 per bridge. Moreover, it hits taxpayers harder at the pump, with gasoline taxes of $0.323 per gallon ranking it 15th in the nation. Still, with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation reporting that the average age of its bridges is over 50 years old, the state faces an uphill battle maintaining its bridge network.
An investing opportunity
The decaying state of our national infrastructure is dangerous, but it also represents an opportunity. For a long time, Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT), Manitowoc (NYSE:MTW), Terex (NYSE:TEX), and other construction- and infrastructure-related companies have looked largely to areas outside the borders of the U.S. for their biggest growth opportunities. Caterpillar has done plenty of work in China building roads and bridges, while Manitowoc's huge cranes to life bridge segments and Terex's aerial work platforms are incredibly useful in various aspects of the precision work necessary to accomplish bridge repair successfully. Other countries have recognized the value of investing in infrastructure, and these companies have developed expertise that they could use closer to home with domestic bridge construction projects.
A renewal of the American commitment to a strong infrastructure would bring the attention of these companies and others back toward their native soil, and potentially creating a great avenue for shareholders to benefit. But much more importantly, such a move would finally help much-needed work move forward to keep America's bridges and highways safe.
Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter: @DanCaplinger. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.