America's bridges aren't that bad

There is frequent alarm when it comes to the state of America's bridges — especially as we now enter holiday driving season.

Here's the thing: Despite an occasional scary video, the overall statistics don't point to a massive epidemic.

And more interestingly, a lot of the data aren't saying what you think they do.

The stats aren't getting worse

Even though people might think there is an epidemic of rapidly deteriorating bridges, the data don't point to that. There are two main types of "bad" bridges that the government tags.

The first kind is structurally deficient, which means the bridge needs real repair. The other kind is functionally obsolete. That may sound worse but it means the bridge doesn't meet modern requirements. Bridges in this category might be safe, but you wouldn't build that bridge again today. Bridges in this category don't need to be repaired, they will eventually be replaced to fit bigger, wider, heavier cars and trucks.

Compared to a decade ago, government statistics show the percentage of bridges in these two categories is basically staying the same — or getting slightly better.

Year Functionally Obsolete Structurally Deficient
2005 13.4% 12.8%
2007 13.2% 12.1%
2008 13.2% 11.9%
2010 12.7% 11.5%
2012 13.9% 11.0%
2014 13.7% 10.1%

Every bridge is treated equally

One problem with these bridge data is they treat every single bridge in the country the same regardless of its size or the traffic it sees. Simply put: Not every bridge is massive and busy like the Golden Gate, Verrazano-Narrows, George Washington or Delaware Memorial Bridges.

There are more than 600,000 bridges in America, and most of them are small bridges — often in rural areas. Every single bridge counts equally in the data, but that doesn't do justice to the fact that they take different amounts of traffic.

If you wanted to get a better sense of the problem, you would weight the bridges by some measure of usage, traffic or load. Treating them all equally isn't the best approach here.

It's not the bridges we think about

When we think about scary bridges, for the most part we are picturing Interstate Highway bridges in urban areas. The truth is that 95 percent of America's bridges are not that kind of bridge.

Type Urban Rural
Interstate 5% 4%
Other freeways 3% 0%
Other arterials 10% 12%
Collector 4% 23%
Local 5% 33%

In fact, 73 percent of America's bridges are rural, suggesting they are smaller, taking on less traffic, and pose less of an overall threat to the way we generally would think about.

The ownership stakes are also something to consider. Almost every bridge is owned by the local or state highway agency. The federal government owns just 1.8 percent of bridges.

Bridge Owner Pct
Local highway agency 49.7%
State highway agency 46.6%
Federal 1.8%
State toll authority 1.2%
Other 0.7%

When it comes to thinking about taxes and spending and who is responsible for making repairs, it comes down to localized spending. Sure a lot of the money does come from the federal government, but the actual work happens more locally.

It's also local and state agencies that self-report the bridge status data — the information we saw up top. Not every state is equally responsive in how forthcoming they want to be on the data, as NBC News has reported before. Some states often have problems getting around to doing regular inspections of the bridges, but there is no real leverage the federal government has to force them to do so.

Money, money money

The cost to fix all these bridges isn't all that high. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it would take an extra $8 billion per year to eliminate our deficient bridge backlog by the year 2028. The total cost is $20.5 billion, with the government already spending $12.8 billion toward that figure.

But what is $20.5 billion, really? There are 114 different companies in the S&P 500 that have higher annual sales. The closest comparison is US Bancorp, with $20.3 billion in revenue. Yes, $20.5 billion is massive relative to the Department of Transportation's budget, which is under $100 billion, or the total amount spent on highways across the country (about $160 billion when counting local and state spending as well). When compared to private company revenue, however, it's not a giant number.

The next time you see presumably scary data about our nation's bridge problem, just know the report may not be as accurate as they say. To be sure, there are plenty of bridges that need repair, but the vast majority of them are fine. In other words, if you are going to die in a car this holiday season, the odds are that it will almost certainly not be because you fell off of a bridge.