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Minorities in Massachusetts More Likely to Live Near Structurally Deficient Bridges, Study Shows

Bridges in the United States are getting older and in desperate need of repair. Some of those bridges, like the Hernando de Soto Bridge across the Mississippi River that needed to be shut down for three months last year for emergency repairs after a large crack was found in a steel support beam, are huge structures on major interstate highways critical to the nation’s commerce. Other bridges, such as the Forbes Avenue Bridge in Pittsburgh, which collapsed in January, are not quite of national significance, but are important to the region. Still others, such as, say, the bridge on Edgewood Drive in Lenox, Massachusetts that collapsed in heavy rains last summer, matter a great deal to the people living in the seven homes on the dead end side of Edgewood Drive, but otherwise don’t have tremendous economic impact.

While it is no secret that a concerning number of American bridges are “structurally deficient”—a Federal Highway Administration definition that means “at least one major weight-bearing component of these structures has serious problems and is in need of repair or replacement”—few if any studies have tried to find out if there are any patterns to the structurally deficient bridges in terms of who lives near them and which ones tend to be most neglected. 

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But a recent study from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center did just that for the bridges in the state. Using a database of some 8,000 bridges by the state’s Department of Transportation, it found there are 644 structurally deficient bridges and another 218 with “unknown” condition, meaning one in 12 are structurally deficient. And Massachusetts residents of color—designated as any race other than non-Hispanic white—are more likely to live closer to a structurally deficient bridge than white Massachusettians. Residents with limited English are even more likely to live near a deficient bridge. 

“To our knowledge, there have not been previous studies of disparities between different groups’ proximity to structurally deficient bridges,” the authors wrote in a footnote.

Moreover, the authors found the disparities are not just a function of minority populations being more likely to live in urban areas and therefore more likely to live closer to bridges. In fact, people of color were not more likely to live closer to bridges in general, regardless of condition; they were only more likely to live closer to deficient bridges. “Thus,” the researchers wrote, “the disparity appears in part to be specifically linked to the disrepair of infrastructure.”

While the study covers only Massachusetts, it echoes recent findings from a Government Accountability Office which found neighborhoods with high rates of family poverty, concentrated minority populations, and urban areas are more likely to be near highways in bad condition. 

It is not exactly clear how structural racism manifests in Massachusetts bridge repair. But the concept of structural racism leading to unequal infrastructure quality has been well-documented by researchers for decades, whether it is where highways are built, who has access to green spaces, quality public transportation, or any of countless other metrics. But the study authors did reference another recent academic study which showed communities with higher proportions of people of color pay higher interest rates when they borrow money than whiter communities, a dynamic “unexplained by credit risk.”

The study also warns that the state’s bridge condition is only likely to get worse as its already old bridges get even older and extreme weather more likely due to climate change damages bridges at a faster pace.

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