WASHINGTON -- President Obama urged Congress last winter to pass his $787 billion stimulus package so some of the economic recovery money could be used to rebuild what he called America's "crumbling bridges."
Lawmakers said it was a historic chance to chip away at the $65 billion backlog of deficient structures, often neglected until a catastrophe like the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed two years ago this Saturday, killing 13 and injuring 145.
Yet tens of thousands of unsafe or decaying bridges carrying 100 million drivers a day must wait for repairs because states are spending stimulus money on spans that are already in good shape or on easier projects like repaving roads, an Associated Press analysis shows.
Of the 2,476 bridges scheduled to receive stimulus money so far, nearly half have passed inspections with high marks, according to federal data. Those 1,123 sound bridges received such high inspection ratings that they normally would not qualify for federal bridge money, yet they will share in more than $1.2 billion in stimulus money.
The wooden bridge built in 1900 carrying Harlan Springs Road in Berkeley County, West Virginia, is one unsafe structures not being repaired. About 2,700 cars cross it every day. But with holes in the wooden deck and corroded railings and missing steel poles, only one car at a time can travel the 300-foot (91-meter) rickety span.
The bridge is an example of how Obama's call to spend recovery money quickly -- on "shovel ready" projects to get people back to work -- has clashed with other goals of the stimulus, such as targeting high-unemployment areas and rebuilding infrastructure. State transportation officials say the need for speed makes it hard to funnel money into needy counties or to take on extensive bridge repairs that can involve years of planning and construction.
Repaving or widening roads requires less planning and can be done quickly, which is why such projects account for 70 percent of the $17 billion in transportation stimulus money approved so far. Bridge projects represent 12 percent.
The spending decisions by states are OK with the Obama administration.
Ed Deseve, the president's chief executive of the stimulus, said the administration understands the desire to tackle "longer-term, gleam-in-the-eye projects" but told states "please, give us your shovel-ready projects."
The idea, he said, was to provide an immediate jolt to the nation's economy.
A few states, such as Virginia and South Carolina, are targeting their troubled bridges. In all, 1,286 deficient or obsolete bridges are expected to share $2.2 billion in stimulus money for repairs, the AP analysis shows.
But that's less than 1 percent of the more than 150,000 bridges nationwide that engineers have labeled deficient or obsolete. Of those, more than 39,000 are considered the worst, rated poor in at least one structural component and eligible to be replaced with federal money.
Safety problems are so obvious on some spans, like the Harlan Springs bridge, that engineers have restricted traffic.
Transportation officials said the stimulus program's mandates -- shovel-ready projects that can be finished in three years and create jobs quickly -- made it nearly impossible to focus on bad bridges that weren't already scheduled for repairs.
That's not exactly how it was billed. Obama pointed to the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge during the Great Depression as an example of how transportation money in the new stimulus law could "remake the face of the nation."
"It's what we're doing once more, by building a 21st century infrastructure that will make America's economy stronger and America's people safer," Obama said in March.
With $27 billion in highway and bridge money, the stimulus provided an important stopgap but is too little to remake the U.S. transportation infrastructure, said Paula Hammond, Washington state's transportation secretary.
"If you wanted that to happen," Hammond said, "you'd probably have to multiply that number by 10."