Vehicles head northbound on Kester Avenue under the U.S. 101 in Sherman Oaks on Friday, February 4, 2022. The 1959 bridge is California’s busiest bridge deemed structurally deficient. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

If you travel between Universal Studios and Encino, you’re using California’s busiest structurally deficient bridge.

Built in 1959, when Dwight Eisenhower was president, it’s where U.S. 101 crosses over Kester Avenue in Los Angeles County. It handles nearly 300,000 crossings per day, according to federal data and the American Road and Transportation Building Association.

California’s second-, third-, and fourth-busiest deficient bridges are also in Los Angeles County. Interstate 5 over Marietta Street was built in 1948, when Harry Truman was president, and sees 258,000 crossings every day; while State Route 134 over Pacific Avenue and State Route 60 over Wilcox Avenue were built when Lyndon Johnson was president. Each handles more than 231,000 crossings per day.

A train passes under the 57 freeway at the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center in Anaheim on Friday, February 4.The bridge is the state’s fifth-busiest that received a “poor” rating from the American Road and Transportation Building Association. The rail is used by BNSF, Amtrak and Metrolink in Anaheim, and logs 229,000 crossings per day. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Orange County hosts the state’s fifth-busiest bridge to earn a “poor” rating, which is comparably modern. Built in 1976, during Gerald Ford’s presidency, State Route 57 crosses over the rail used by BNSF, Amtrak and Metrolink in Anaheim, and logs 229,000 crossings per day.

Authorities say these bridges need work but are perfectly safe — which is what Pennsylvania officials said about the 50-year-old bridge that collapsed in Pittsburgh last month, forcing rescuers to rappel into a snowy ravine to free stunned bus riders after the road buckled beneath them. The failed Forbes Avenue bridge over Fern Hollow Creek carried just 14,500 vehicles a day.

‘Fair or poor’

More than half of the bridge-miles in California — 53.7% — are in fair or poor condition, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Bridge Index.

But it varies greatly from county to county.

The worst was San Mateo County, where more than 86% of the bridges were in fair or poor condition. In Orange County, 60.2% were rated fair or poor, compared to 51.1% in San Bernardino County, 46.8% in Riverside County, and 35.6% in Los Angeles County.

“The bottom line is that big ticket items get the press, and not pavement management or bridge conditions,” said Michael McNally, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Irvine.

Billions are on the way from the federal infrastructure bill, which will help. California also has a stream of money for repairs, and the counties have extra transportation sales taxes to pay for improvements.

But, historically speaking, basic bridge maintenance just hasn’t been real sexy. In the most recent Report Card for California’s Infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Golden State earned a C-minus — halfway between “Mediocre: Requires Attention” and “Poor: At Risk.”

“Given our state’s booming economy and budget surpluses, however, now may be the time to reconsider infrastructure health before we have bridge collapses, drinking water problems or related issues for things people just expect to work,” McNally said.

The Golden Gate Bridge in 2020. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Senior citizen infrastructure

All told, there are 25,737 bridges in California. Nearly 6% of them — 1,493 — are classified as structurally deficient, meaning that at least one key element is in poor or worse condition.

The state government is responsible for maintaining more than 13,000 of California’s bridges. The rest — more than 12,000 — belong to local governments like cities, counties and special districts.

“We have local bridges that are literally part of the national highway system,” said Chris Lee, legislative representative with the California State Association of Counties. “In other states, the state department of transportation might be way more involved, and cities and counties less so. It’s different in California.”

One of those is the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, owned and operated by a special district. It opened on May 27, 1937, and will soon celebrate 85 years of operation. It’s in fair condition, according to the NBI.

SOURCE: California Statewide Local Streets and Road Needs Assessment, California State Association of Counties

The Golden Gate is not alone as an infrastructure senior citizen. Of California’s locally owned bridges, nearly 60% are 50 years or older, according to an analysis by the CSAC. More startling, perhaps, nearly 20% are 80 years or older.

“A lot of these bridges were built during the baby boom, when California was growing fast and building a lot,” Lee said. “We know they have 70 to 80 years of design life. We also know that things deteriorate.”

Inspection requirements, usually every other year, ensure that officials keep an eye on conditions — “If there’s any immediate threat to public safety, those inspections are going to catch it,” Lee said — but California has hundreds of bridges that are closed or load-restricted as they wait for modernization.

“Looking at the data, we know that we have a lot of stuff we need to repair, and better now than waiting for catastrophic failure,” Lee said. “We don’t want to scare people, but there are limits to how long it can last and what it can handle.”

SOURCE: California Statewide Local Streets and Road Needs Assessment, California State Association of Counties

The state has identified needed repairs on 1,698 bridges, at an estimated cost of $11.7 billion, ARTBA found.

The city and county piece totals $7.2 billion, CSAC said. Now, local agencies spend about $300 million per year on repairs and maintenance. It would take $800 million a year — an additional half-billion dollars — just to keep the percentage of “poor” bridges from increasing. If funding doesn’t change, more than half of California’s locally owned bridges would be in poor condition by 2040.

Luckily, some help is on the way.

Billions coming

California will get a $4.2 billion influx of federal funding to fix the state’s bridges over the next five years. The first piece of it  — $849.4 million — arrives this fiscal year.

SOURCE: California Statewide Local Streets and Road Needs Assessment, California State Association of Counties

“This is the largest federal bridge formula program in American history and is made possible by the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” said Will Arnold, a spokesman for Caltrans, by email.

“This historic investment will help fix the state’s bridges that need it most, make them more resilient and safer for all users, and keep our economy moving.”

Caltrans inspects every bridge in California at least every two years, and the “good,” “fair” and “poor” ratings are based on issues such as cracks, concrete loss and the need to repaint. A poor rating — while not an indication that a bridge is unsound — signals maintenance of the bridge should be prioritized, he said. Money from the infrastructure bill will target the 1,500 bridges rated “poor.”

Modernization will help them withstand climate change, and make them safer for cyclists and pedestrians as well as motorists.

The federal money comes on top of state money. Senate Bill 1, the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017, will provide about $5 billion in transportation funding a year through 2027, split between the state and local agencies.

Caltrans has repaired an average of 221 bridges annually with SB 1 funding — an 85% increase over pre-SB 1 levels, Arnold said. By 2027, Caltrans will have repaired 500 more bridges than it would have without SB 1 funding.

With billions coming from the federal government, which projects will get done first? That’s still being hashed out, but the Caltrans Project Book ( illustrates how the state prioritizes repairs based on a bridge’s rating and condition, Arnold said.

A train passes under the 57 Freeway near the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center (ARTIC) in Anaheim,  on Feb. 4. The bridge got a “poor” rating, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, and is California’s fifth-busiest with that rating. The rail is used by BNSF, Amtrak and Metrolink, and the bridge logs 229,000 crossings per day. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The collapse of the Pittsburgh bridge was a national wake-up call, many said.

“We just don’t know what caused it,” said Kevin Longley, spokesman for the American Society of Civil Engineers. “It’s been in poor condition since 2011. Maybe something hit it? Maybe something too heavy that wasn’t supposed to cross went over it anyway? It will take several months to figure out.”

The new funding won’t fix everything that needs fixing, but it’s a good start, he said.

“We’re excited to see the federal government responding to what’s a really pressing need,” said CSAC’s Lee.

  • An investigator, left, looks at the bus and a vehicle after Friday’s bridge collapse Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

  • A Crane hoists a Pittsburgh Transit Authority bus on Monday Jan. 31, 2022, that was trapped on the Fern Hollow Bridge when it collapsed on Jan 28, 2022.(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

  • Officials gather at the edge of bridge that collapsed Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in Pittsburgh’s East End. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

  • A view of the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh that collapsed Friday morning, Jan. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)