Arlington Memorial Bridge is falling down

The severely rusted interior of the Arlington Memorial Bridge bascule (drawbridge) span that necessitated lane closures for emergency repairs.National Park Service photo
The severely rusted interior of the Arlington Memorial Bridge bascule (drawbridge) span that necessitated lane closures for emergency repairs.
National Park Service photo

By Joshua Marks

As Rabbi Jack Moline approaches the Arlington Memorial Bridge during the morning commute to his job in Washington as executive director of Interfaith Alliance, the Alexandria resident is accustomed to seeing majestic views of the Lincoln Memorial.

But the rabbi, along with the nearly 68,000 motorists who cross the 83-year-old bridge on a typical workday, now sees signs warning of lane closures, as the National Park Service prepares to spend between six and nine months making emergency repairs to the bridge.

Moline waxed biblical when asked if Judaism had anything to say about the state of the nation’s crumbling infrastructure: “We’re not allowed to put people in harm’s way, and if we’re doing it by neglect, and particularly if we are misleading them into thinking that because everything seems all right on the surface that it’s alright underneath too, we need to correct that as a community.”

Underneath the surface is where Federal Highway Administration engineers determined during an inspection that the bascule, or drawbridge portion of the undercarriage, was so badly corroded that it necessitated closing both curbside lanes in the drawbridge section. A 10-ton weight limit was also imposed. That means the 150 buses that use the bridge on an average day, many of which take tourists to Arlington National Cemetery on the Virginia side, will have to find other ways to cross the Potomac River.

While the $3 million for emergency repairs to reopen the lanes is funded, the National Park Service says it needs up to $250 million for a full rehabilitation, which would include replacing the rusted section and redecking the surface. That means the weight restrictions are in place indefinitely until Congress comes up with the federal funding. The National Park Service receives $15 million to $20 million for its transportation projects in the Washington area and $240 million for the entire country. In addition to the Arlington Memorial Bridge, the National Park Service says there is a $5 billion backlog in transportation repairs nationwide.

“Please, look at this bridge – two lanes closed on one of the most important entrances to our nation’s capital. We already have the worst traffic congestion in the country, and now this,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) at a press conference last week with elected officials.

“This is not just the symbol, but the reality, of failed leadership. The United States is the richest country in the history of mankind. We’re the democratic leader, the military leader, the human rights leader, the financial leader, the education leader of all the world. Why, oh why, can we not be the investment leader? The country who invests in our infrastructure today, and for our children and grandchildren,” he said.

Joining Beyer in calling for stronger federal infrastructure investment was Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) called on Congress to fix the nation's crumbling transportation infrastructure at a June 1 press conference on the Virginia side of the Arlington Memorial Bridge following the National Park Service's announcement that emergency repairs would close two lanes of traffic on the bridge for six to nine months.Photo by Josh Marks
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) called on Congress to fix the nation’s crumbling transportation infrastructure at a June 1 press conference on the Virginia side of the Arlington Memorial Bridge following the National Park Service’s announcement that emergency repairs would close two lanes of traffic on the bridge for six to nine months.
Photo by Josh Marks

Norton, ranking member of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, said that she had introduced the Save Our National Parks Transportation Act. The bill would direct $460 million annually to federal roads and bridges for fiscal years 2016 to 2021. The money could be used to reconstruct the Arlington Memorial Bridge.

“The need to reroute rush-hour traffic across a historic gateway to the nation’s capital, with the attendant cost to businesses and the federal government and its workforce, marks a nadir in congressional neglect of the nation’s infrastructure,” Norton said. “It should make unthinkable anything short of the funding in my bill for bridges or roads, like the Memorial Bridge, and a six-year funding bill for the states.”

Current funding runs out in July.

Foxx touted the Grow America Act, which he recently sent to Congress, as a long-term solution to rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. It would cover six years and include $478 billion.

Last month, Congress passed a short-term extension to the Highway Trust Fund that expires July 31, the 33rd stopgap measure since 2008.

The bill, Foxx said, “would dramatically increase investments in our nation’s infrastructure. It would help us repair not only bridges like this, but to help us build more expansion into our road system, our transit system and our rail system in this country.”

Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future Educational Fund, an organization that advocates for increased infrastructure investments, said that a long-term transportation bill is needed to rebuild the more than 61,000 structurally deficient bridges in the United States, including Arlington Memorial Bridge.

She said that by failing to invest in infrastructure, the United States is rapidly falling behind other countries building high-speed rail, upgrading highway systems and modernizing ports. The World Economic Forum ranked the United States first in infrastructure in 2005; by 2014 the country had fallen to 12th place.

“There’s going to need to be some courage” to find a way to raise revenue for infrastructure investments, she said. Her group advocates for a 10-cent increase in the gas tax and indexing it to inflation. The gas tax, last raised in 1993, is currently set at 18.4 cents per gallon.

With more fuel-efficient, hybrid and electric vehicles on the roads today, Oregon is testing a usage tax that could become a model for the nation. Instead of adding taxes at the pump, drivers would pay a flat tax per mile traveled. Other ideas include international tax reform and raising taxes at the source by charging a fee to oil companies.

Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report card on the nation’s infrastructure. In 2013 America’s GPA was a D+ with an estimated investment of $3.6 trillion needed by 2020. The nation’s 607,380 bridges fared slightly better than America’s overall infrastructure with a C+ grade. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that $20.5 billion needs to be invested annually by 2028 to eliminate a backlog of structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges. $12.8 billion is currently being spent annually.

American Society of Civil Engineers President Bob Stevens said the organization is preparing its 2017 report card and points out that rail and solid waste saw some improvements from 2009 to 2013 because of an increase in investments in these sectors.

“It shows we can make improvement. All it takes is the proper amount of money being there,” Stevens said. “These problems are fixable. But it needs the money.”

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