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Legislative action needed to avoid bridge disaster

The recent bridge failure in Minnesota was a terrible and avoidable disaster. Worse yet, it is one that is waiting to happen in cities and towns all around America. If you don’t think it could happen in Arizona, think again.
Arizona has 720 bridges that are deficient or obsolete, 10 percent of the bridges in Arizona!  Of those, 162 are “structurally deficient” according to an Oct. 3, 2006, Federal Highway Administration report. The bridge report can be found at www.bts.gov/publications/state_transportation_statistics/state_transportation_statistics_2006. On a daily basis Arizonans drive over bridges that need significant repair or replacement. 
Arizona also has dozens of dams that have safety deficiencies or are flatly declared by the state to be unsafe. You can see the lists at http://www.azwater.gov/dwr/Content/Find_by_Program/Dam_Safety_and_Flood_Mitigation/default.htm.
Bridge collapses are not flukes. Nor are other infrastructure failures. They occur due to neglect of our core infrastructure. Our state’s tremendous growth requires that we properly fund infrastructure repair and replacement. No one wants to pay taxes. However, we must repair, replace and build the core infrastructure of bridges, water, sewer, storm sewers and roads. 
Most of our larger local governments are doing a tremendous job with core infrastructure paid for by voter-approved bond issues. Voters consistently approve bonds to pay for core infrastructure. The state and smaller local governments, however, continue to fall behind due to the massive scale of the needed funding.
We think of ourselves as a new state with new communities. However, in many places in Arizona, our systems for transport of water and sewage, storm drains, roads and other vital infrastructure are 50-to 75-plus years old. These systems are not up to current standards and we must fund their repair or replacement, or risk a disaster of our own.
A bridge collapse is not just a local issue — it is an issue that will affect all of us and it is our responsibility to ensure that every bridge in Arizona is safe. Families from our big cities drive over remote bridges and rural citizens drive under big city bridges. Local jurisdictions cannot afford the major costs that will be associated with the needed bridge assessment and repair program. 
In my experience, we are fortunate to have thousands of dedicated professionals working in our transportation and engineering departments all over the state. They deserve more resources to do their jobs right.
The governor and our boards of supervisors should take the lead in thoroughly examining these bridge issues. The next legislative session should address and fund a comprehensive program to eliminate all structurally deficient bridges and dams in Arizona in a very reasonable time. This is a statewide issue that compels a statewide solution.  
The 1993-94 Select Committee on Highway User Revenue Funding appointed by the governor and Legislature, on which I served, found billions and billions of dollars in unfunded highway needs in Arizona. Years later, Gov. Jane Hull’s Vision 21 Study called for $20 billion in additional highway infrastructure funding, and made structural recommendations that should be re-examined.
The simple reality is that more money is needed. Everything should be on the table. User fees. Fuel taxes. Toll roads or lanes. Privatization of select infrastructure. More transit. All options must be considered.
Arizona should not have any structurally deficient bridges. It’s not just Minnesota’s problem!
Tom Irvine is a real estate and construction lawyer and a shareholder in the regional law firm of Shughart Thomson & Kilroy.  He served on the 1993-94 Select Committee on Highway User Revenue Funding and as President of the Maricopa County Industrial Development Authority.  

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