Durbin, Duckworth urge release of bridge funds

Senators say Illinois has more than 2,000 bridges deemed ‘structurally deficient’

The I-80 bridge across the Des Plaines River has been under scrutiny as needing repairs. (Flickr/jetzenpolis)

The I-80 bridge across the Des Plaines River has been under scrutiny as needing repairs. (Flickr/jetzenpolis)

By Ted Cox

The state’s two U.S. senators issued an urgent call Tuesday for the release of federal funding for bridges in need of repair.

Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth sent a letter to the Federal Highway Administration urging the immediate release of $475 million they secured in the recently passed appropriations bill “specifically allocated only for bridge repair and replacement and only for states that have the highest percentages of structurally deficient bridges.”

The senators cited a study by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which found that “Illinois has the fifth-highest number of structurally deficient bridges in the nation.”

According to the senators, of the 26,775 bridges in Illinois, 2,303, or 8.6 percent, are classified as structurally deficient, and they handle 9 million cars, trucks, and buses a day.

Duckworth and Durbin pointed out: “Congress allocated the funding this way to ensure it gets to states like Illinois who need it the most.”

They add in the letter: “Illinois has identified needed repairs on 2,642 bridges in the state, which the state estimates will cost nearly $10 billion. Increased investment at both the state and federal level is badly needed to confront this challenge, which is why we pushed to include nearly half a billion dollars for risk-based bridge repair in this year’s appropriations bill. Each day that FHWA waits to release this new funding is another day that the state of Illinois must wait to address some of its pressing bridge repair issues.”

The federal funds could be used on bridges like the one on Interstate 80 across the Des Plaines River near Joliet, which has been under scrutiny since WBBM-TV in Chicago reported last month that a state inspection had found it to be structurally “intolerable,” with the westbound side in “critical condition and may require closure.”

The Illinois Department of Transportation has declared the bridge safe, and it’s slated for $5 million in repairs. But that hasn’t kept a prominent Chicago-area union, Local 150 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, from renting a billboard along a nearby stretch of I-80 to post two messages: “Bridge ahead in critical condition” and “Cross bridge at your own risk.”

The union, of course, has a vested interest in infrastructure, but the widespread problem is also widely recognized. Gov. Pritzker called for a major capital spending bill to address essential infrastructure in his inaugural speech in January.

The statewide problem also gained publicity last month when a bridge across the Chicago River on Lake Shore Drive suffered a beam failure following a brutal snap of cold weather. It caused the bridge to be closed while repairs were made.

The Illinois Economic Policy Institute issued a report a year ago that found that IDOT roadways have deteriorated over the last two decades due to lack of repairs and the failure to pass a major capital spending bill. ILEPI charged that 20 percent of IDOT roads are rated in “poor” condition, up from 8 percent in 2001, and 31 percent of all bridges across the state, almost a third, are more than 50 years old, with 8 percent of IDOT bridges considered “backlogged,” meaning overdue for replacement.