America’s $123 billion bridges

Exploring the 614,000 bridges of the United States: key investments, iconic monuments

There’s just something magic about a bridge. It’s a feat of engineering as much as a fruit of imagination and invention. Its life begins in the pencil strokes of a visionary; then, with passion and elbow grease, builders make the vision a reality.

Bridges can conquer so much, overcoming obstacles both natural and artificial, connecting two places that face each other from opposite riverbanks, or simultaneously broadening our horizons and making our world a bit smaller. Traveling around the United States, the magic of bridges is palpable.

With its 614,387 bridges, America lives out and passes down the dream of its pioneers. Every state and county has its own icon, displayed with pride. The varieties are endless: viaducts, cable-stayed, cantilevered, single-span suspension bridges, arched bridges, bridges with steel tie-rods, bridges with magnificent coverings. In a way, they almost seem to compete with each other—highest, longest, widest, most visited, most photographed. And, of course, the Hollywood factor: which bridges have featured the most scenes of romantic rendezvous or reckless stunts? It’s almost as if behind every success story, there’s a bridge.

The pandemic has not diminished the beauty of these bridges, but only brought it to the forefront. Photographs taken at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis of icons like New York’s Brooklyn Bridge or San Francisco’s Golden Gate (with no traffic piles or tourist caravans to speak of) demonstrated their importance. Last year’s New York Marathon saw some 50,000 people cross five city bridges (the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, the Pulaski, Queensboro, Willis Avenue and Madison Avenue); but this year, to contain the spread of the virus, the marathon will not take place.

Every bridge has a story

Every bridge has a unique story. The Verrazzano Bridge, located southwest of Manhattan and connecting Brooklyn with Staten Island, is the starting point for the New York Marathon. At the time of its 1964 inauguration, it was the world’s longest suspension bridge. It remains the longest in the United States, spanning 4260 feet. Today, a dozen structures across Japan, China and Turkey surpass it in length; emblematic of this group are three bridges over the Bosphorus, two of which were built by the Webuild Group.

New York City counts some 2,000 “crossing points” between bridges, viaducts and tunnels, but faces West Coast competition. In California, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is one of the world’s most famous monuments, while the Bixby Creek Bridge and the Rocky Creek Bridge stand out along the famous Big Sur coastal highway, against the scenic backdrop of the Pacific Ocean.

Traveling toward the Los Angeles area means crossing hundreds of bridges, some of which have been around for at least a century, like the Colorado Street Bridge, built in 1912. Other more recent structures have become obsolete due to unsustainable traffic growth. Examples include some bridges reaching the port to Long Beach, including the old Gerald Desmond Bridge, which will soon be replaced by a new bridge built by the Webuild Group and its American subsidiary Lane Construction. Work is almost done and the new Desmond has already been noted for its innovative and sustainable qualities, in addition to its essential role for the U.S. economy.

Bridges in United States: innovation for the future

The Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration are examining new technologies to respond to the wear-and-tear of existing infrastructure. As many as four out of ten bridges are at least 50 years old, and nine out of a hundred, according to American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reports, are structurally compromised and nearing the end of their lifespan.

In 2017, the ASCE estimated that it would take $123 billion in investments to adequately restructure America’s bridges. A portion of this is slated to be provided through plans enacted or currently being discussed in Congress, such as the Moving Forward Act, which would provide $1.5 trillion in infrastructure funding (the Democrat-majority House approved it on June 30). Another measure, drafted by the Republican-majority Senate, would provide $1 trillion in funding. The plans have conflicting goals and content, however, so the proposed funds may remain on paper until the presidential elections in November.

Investing in US bridges: states’ responses

Many important improvement programs are being implemented in individual states. Across borders, there has been an uptick in new construction projects, with special safety measures in place to keep work sites open amid the pandemic.

Lane Construction and Webuild have various projects underway. In the New York area, the demolition phase is in progress for the eventual reconstruction of the Unionport Bridge, an important link in the Bronx. This tilting drawbridge handles daily traffic of between 50,000 and 60,000 vehicles.

Replacing a bridge sometimes requires installing new infrastructure while the existing one is still in use, as with the Gerald Desmond bridge. Keeping such construction work from interfering with daily traffic involves complex maneuvers and efficient management of people, machinery, and new structures. Lane Construction has completed various projects across the United States, such as the Max Brewer Bridge, a crucial link to the Cape Canaveral area of Florida, and the Jordan Bridge in Norfolk, Virginia.

American bridges: icons of history

From one state to another, you’ll find postcard-worthy icons, like the Smithfield Street Bridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the first lattice bridge in the United States to use steel trusses. With well over a century of history behind it (1883), this structure has been renovated and expanded over the years. Then there’s the “Big Mac” or Mackinac Bridge, the 5-mile-long suspension bridge connecting the two peninsulas of the enormous Lake Michigan, nearly at the Canadian border. Or the majestic New River Gorge, found in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, once the world’s longest span arch bridge and still the third highest in America.

Beautifully “covered” structures are also an integral part of the bridge design canon. It’s a category that has now become largely obsolete; for the most part, these bridges are historical sites closed to motor vehicle traffic. The Cataract Covered Bridge in Indiana, built in 1876 and retired in 2005, the Cornish-Windsor between New Hampshire and Vermont, the Sachs Bridge in Pennsylvania and the Silk Bridge in Vermont are some of the best-known examples.

The United States has the world’s largest collection of bridges and viaducts extending directly and completely into the sea, with a particularly high concentration in Florida. These bridges connect endless stretches of sand that are now both desirable residential areas and tourist destinations, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. In all, Florida operates 12,355 bridges.

These structures have to be able to withstand tropical storms and hurricanes. The oldest is the famous Seven Mile Bridge, which connects Miami to the Keys, forming a man-made peninsula extending into the Caribbean. Originally a railway bridge, it dates from 1912. Seventy years later, it was completely replaced and transformed into a major motor vehicle road. For long stretches, the new bridge runs parallel to the old one, which pedestrians and cyclists now use in select stretches.

The Seven Mile is just the first in a long series of equally important and beautiful bridges. The expansive Tampa Bay, on the Gulf Coast, is home to a wide range of water crossings. It boasts the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, one of the most elegant bridges built in the US in recent history. Made of steel and reinforced concrete, and just over four miles long, it rises incrementally to allow ships to pass under its central portion.

The network of bridges and viaducts projecting into the bay gives the Sunshine Skyway a crucial role: the altitude of the bridge allows access by sea to Tampa-St. Petersburg. However, maritime traffic has changed since the construction of the new Panama Canal, completed in 2016 by a consortium of European builders led by the Webuild Group. The central portion of the Sunshine Skyway no longer meets the height regulations to allow transit of New Panamax commercial and cruise ships.

Tampa Bay does not meet the minimum 50-foot draught requirements for New Panamax; plans to make it comply with regulations have been shelved. For the time being, then, the Sunshine Skyway (a cable-stayed bridge from 1987) is not up for discussion, despite the barrier it poses to large ships.

The situation is different in Long Beach. With its 31 miles of waterfront, 10 piers, and 66 New Panamax cranes, it was one of the few U.S. ports to have prepared moorings deep enough for large ships from the beginning. Additionally, the old Gerald Desmond bridge could no longer sustain its levels of car traffic toward the port, which handles 37% of all U.S. sea trade when combined with its sister port of Los Angeles.

American bridges: strategic infrastructure for the country

 In the last ten years, American governments have become increasingly aware that bridges require significant maintenance and timely replacement. Traveler mobility and safety are top concerns with the pending funding. According to an American Society of Civil Engineers report, every day in 2016, 188 million vehicles crossed the U.S.’s 56,000 bridges then classified as structurally deficient.

Upgrading the bridges is not just a way of preserving the heritage of the United States, then, but will also help protect millions of lives.