Highway Bridge Program:

Clearer Goals and Performance Measures Needed for a More Focused and Sustainable Program

GAO-08-1043: Published: Sep 10, 2008. Publicly Released: Sep 10, 2008.

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The August 1, 2007, collapse of a Minnesota bridge raised nationwide questions about bridge safety and the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) ability to prioritize resources for bridges. The Highway Bridge Program (HBP), the primary source of federal funding for bridges, provided over $4 billion to states in fiscal year 2007. This requested study examines (1) how the HBP addresses bridge conditions, (2) how states use HBP funds and select bridge projects for funding, (3) what data indicate about bridge conditions and the HBP's impact, and (4) the extent to which the HBP aligns with principles GAO developed, based on prior work and federal laws and regulations, for re-examining surface transportation programs. GAO reviewed program documents; analyzed bridge data; and met with transportation officials in states that have high levels of HBP funding and large bridge inventories, including California, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington.

Based on information gathered during bridge inspections that are generally conducted every 2 years, the HBP classifies bridge conditions as deficient or not; assigns each bridge a sufficiency rating reflecting its structural adequacy, safety, serviceability, and relative importance; and uses that information to distribute funding to states to improve bridges. Deficient bridges include those that are structurally deficient, with one or more components in poor condition, and those that are functionally obsolete, with a poor configuration or design that may no longer be adequate for the traffic they serve. While each state's HBP apportionment amount is largely determined by bridge conditions and bridges generally must be below a certain condition threshold to qualify for HBP funding, other bridges are also eligible for HBP funds because states may use the funds for a broad array of other purposes, such as bridge systematic preventive maintenance projects. The HBP affords states discretion to use HBP funds and select bridge projects in a variety of ways. Some states are focused on reducing their number of deficient bridges, while other states are pursuing different bridge priorities. For example, California has focused on seismically retrofitting bridges, a safety concern for that state. Furthermore, some states have developed tools and approaches for selecting bridge projects that go beyond those required by the HBP, such as bridge management systems and state-specific bridge condition rating systems. Bridge conditions, as measured by the number of deficient bridges and average sufficiency rating, improved from 1998 through 2007. However, the impact of the HBP on that improvement is difficult to determine, in part, because (1) the program provides only a share of what states spend on bridges and there are no comprehensive data for state and local spending on bridges and (2) HBP funds can, in some cases, be used for a variety of bridge projects without regard to a bridge's deficiency status or sufficiency rating. The HBP does not fully align with GAO's principles, which are based on GAO's prior work and federal laws and regulations, in that the program lacks focus, performance measures, and sustainability. For example, the program's statutory goals are not focused on a clearly identified federal or national interest, but rather have expanded from improving deficient bridges to supporting seismic retrofitting, preventive maintenance, and many other projects, thus expanding the federal interest to potentially include almost any bridge in the country. In addition, the program lacks measures linking funding to performance and is not sustainable, given the anticipated deterioration of the nation's bridges and the declining purchasing power of funding currently available for bridge maintenance, rehabilitation, and replacement. Once the federal interest in bridges is clearly defined, policymakers can clarify the goals for federal involvement and align the program to achieve those goals. HBP sustainability may also be improved by identifying and developing performance measures and re-examining funding mechanisms.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendation for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the focus, performance, and sustainability of the HBP, the Secretary of Transportation should work with Congress to identify and define specific national goals for the HBP; determine the performance of the program by developing and implementing performance measures related to the goals for the HBP; identify and evaluate best tools and practices that can potentially be incorporated into the HBP, such as bridge management systems; and review and evaluate HBP funding mechanisms to align funding with performance and support a targeted and sustainable federal bridge program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, we reported that the Highway Bridge Program (HBP), the primary source of federal funding for bridges, needed clearer goals and performance measures for a more focused and sustainable program. We found that the HBP affords states discretion to use HBP funds and select bridge projects in a variety of ways, such as reducing their number of deficient bridges or for seismically retrofitting bridges. However, the HBP does not fully align with principles established in our previous work and developed for re-examining surface transportation programs because the program lacks goals that are focused on a clearly identified federal or national interest, performance measures, and sustainability. Therefore, we recommended that the Department of Transportation (DOT) work with Congress to identify specific program goals in the national interest. DOT worked with Congress to achieve effective action through the surface transportation reauthorization process. In July 2012, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21)--reauthorized Federal-aid highway, transit, and safety programs through Fiscal Year 2014--consolidated a number of existing highway programs, including the HBP. Bridge projects are now funded by the National Highway Performance Program (NHPP) or the Surface Transportation Program. MAP-21 specified a program goal for NHPP, which is to improve those bridges on the National Highway System. As a result, federal funds on highway bridges are more focused on a clearly identified national interest.

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