Are you one of the 23,000 drivers who use the bridges that carry Interstate 72 over Sixth Street in Springfield on an average day? If you are, chances are it was unnerving to learn that those bridges are among the 21 in Sangamon County that are considered “structurally deficient” by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

That doesn’t mean the bridge is unsafe, according to IDOT. What it does mean is that a main component of the bridge — which could be the deck, the supports of the deck or the foundation of the structure — needs to be repaired. About 8.6 percent of the bridges in Illinois are classified as structurally deficient, although in Sangamon County, less than 5 percent of its 458 bridges have that classification. Still, many of the state’s bridges undoubtedly need work: Illinois ranks fifth nationally for the highest number of structurally deficient bridges, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Even though IDOT and the county highway department assure us that bridges would be closed if they can’t safely carry traffic, it would be better to know those bridges were in tip-top shape. It’s also frustrating to know there is a small likelihood that any of these infrastructure problems will be addressed quickly. At least $13 billion to $15 billion is needed for maintenance on the roads and bridges in Illinois, according to IDOT acting secretary Omer Osman. An additional $30 billion would cover the costs of the work needed to be done in aviation, public transportation and railways.

“Our infrastructure continues to deteriorate faster than we can keep up with it,” he said at a recent hearing in the Statehouse. Those hearings included discussion on what projects should be part of a proposed capital bill. But as noted by state Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, the needed improvements are so great throughout Illinois that there is no way they will all get done. The wants will inevitably be prioritized into the categories of “musts” and “can wait.”

Also likely to be hotly debated is how to pay for these projects. A bill introduced last week in the General Assembly would double the state’s share of the gasoline tax, which for almost two decades has sat at 19 cents. It also proposes increasing fees for things like driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations.

Federal funding is also being sought: U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth have asked the Federal Highway Administration to release $475 million in new federal funding for risk-based bridge repair and replacement. We’d be happier if talk of a federal capital bill was a more urgent discussion in Congress.

A capital plan to address these needed repairs is long overdue, as the last bill occurred a decade ago. The state tends to aim for one big capital plan every so often, and by the time it comes around, the needs have become critical enough that it is a matter of fixing the most glaring problems.

The smarter approach would be to ensure there is funding on a regular basis for maintenance, which would make costs more manageable by addressing issues before they become more serious.

Legislators need to get a capital plan done this year. We want to hear more about how they will pay for it and how they will prioritize the vast needs. But we also hope their discussion includes shifting from periodically infusing a bunch of money into a capital plan to deal with pent-up infrastructure needs, and focus instead on crafting an ongoing maintenance program that deals with issues as they arise.

The State Journal-Register, Springfield, Sunday

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