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With limited cash, aging bridges test Va. priorities

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia has about 1,400 bridges listed as structurally deficient. It has nearly 2,000 that were built before World War II. So why is it so tough to find money to improve them?

(Photo: Associated Press)

As with the federal government and other states across the country, it hasn't been a priority people are willing pay more for. President Barack Obama renewed the issue last week by appealing for infrastructure spending as part of his jobs bill.

Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine twice asked the General Assembly during his term to boost taxes to cope with a growing backlog of highway needs, and twice, legislative Republicans rejected new taxes for roads and bridges.

His GOP successor, Gov. Bob McDonnell, won't raise taxes, instead proposing tolls, debt, selling state-owned liquor stores and more than $1 billion in savings a transportation department audit uncovered. While even fellow Republicans rebuffed his liquor-privatization idea, he marshaled enough cash this year to free up more than $3 billion for road construction and maintenance.

Last week, McDonnell gained conditional federal approval of his proposal to place tolls on Interstate 95 in Virginia.

But McDonnell and legislative leaders of the GOP-ruled House and the Democratic Senate agree that the one-time money infusion is far short of the state's long-term transportation needs.

And Virginia can no longer anticipate federal funding - for generations, a major source of highway financing for states - with any degree of certainty.

For the past two years, the program has lived from one short-term extension to the next while Congress wrestles with the same partisan arguments that have sunk Virginia's efforts to enact the first new, sustained stream of revenue for roads, rails and transit since 1987.

Two-thirds of people questioned in a Pew Center poll last year opposed cutting money in their state for roads and public transit as a way to balance strained budgets. But only 38 percent want federal spending increased and only 27 percent support higher gasoline taxes to pay for it.

The same poll also found that three-fourths think increased spending on highways, bridges and other public works would create jobs in a time of high joblessness.

That's where Obama rooted his appeal in a speech delivered in Cincinnati at the base of the Brent Spence Bridge, which carries a major interstate artery across the Ohio River into Kentucky. It's an appeal he also made two weeks earlier in Richmond - just a few miles from House Republican Leader Eric Cantor's home - where he kicked off his tour to pressure Congress to adopt his $450 billion jobs plan.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimated in 2008 that 12 percent of America's bridges were structurally deficient. That doesn't necessarily mean a span is unsafe; it means it requires frequent monitoring, and significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement.

In Virginia, depending on the figures used and the age of the data, the proportion of structurally deficient bridges hovers around 9 percent.

Transportation for America, a nonprofit and nonpartisan coalition of industry and advocacy groups working on transportation reform issues, released a report saying 9.4 percent of Virginia's spans were structurally deficient. The group ranked the state 31st nationally, much better than Pennsylvania, the worst at 26.5 percent, but far from Nevada, the nation's best at only 2.2 percent.

As of last October, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation website, 1,764 of the state's 20,872 bridges were structurally deficient, or 8.5 percent. A more recent analysis puts the number closer to 1,400.
But that doesn't tell the whole story, either.

An Associated Press computer analysis of recent data sets downloadable from VDOT's Web site shows that nearly 2,000 Virginia bridges built before the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack are still in service. Among them, VDOT lists nearly 500 - or one-fourth - as being structurally deficient.

Rural, hilly areas seem to have the largest share of pre-World War II bridges. Augusta County had the most with 123, which is more than the total number of 70-plus-year-old spans in VDOT's Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia regional districts combined.

Bedford County had 112, and Albemarle had 101.

VDOT spokesman Joe Vagi said Friday that VDOT bridge experts unavailable to discuss the issue.

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