Sat, Aug 04, 2007 - Page 7 News List

70,000 US bridges rated as `structurally deficient'

WAKE UP CALL In the wake of Wednesday's disaster in Minneapolis, engineers say US$9.4 billion a year for 20 years is needed to repair other at-risk bridges


With only a single body recovered from the Mississippi in a frustrating day of searching on Thursday, the families of the 20 to 30 people still missing after a bridge collapsed here maintained an anxious vigil.

By day's end, the four bodies recovered in the hours following the accident on Wednesday had been identified.

Shock and grief turned to anger and blame as reports surfaced that officials had warned as early as 1990 that a bridge which collapsed over the Mississippi had serious structural problems.

"This really should be a wake up call for America," Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid told reporters in Washington. "We have infrastructure that is deteriorating and deteriorating."

The structural problems with the Interstate 35 bridge were so severe that state officials considered bolting steel plates to its supports to prevent cracking in fatigued metal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported yesterday.

They decided against it out of fear that the bolts would weaken the bridge and a fresh inspection was delayed by unrelated repairs to the driving surface.

Meanwhile, more than 70,000 bridges across America are rated structurally deficient like the span that collapsed in Minneapolis, and engineers estimate repairing them all would take at least a generation and cost more than US$188 billion.

That works out to at least US$9.4 billion a year over 20 years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The bridges carry an average of more than 300 million vehicles a day.

It is unclear how many of the spans pose actual safety risks. Federal officials alerted the states late on Thursday to immediately inspect all bridges similar to the Mississippi River span that collapsed.

There are 756 such steel-deck truss bridges, according to highway officials. No list of bridge locations was available.

In a separate cost estimate, the Federal Highway Administration has said addressing the backlog of needed bridge repairs would take at least US$55 billion.

That was five years ago, with expectations of more deficiencies to come.

It is money that Congress, the federal government and the states have so far been unable or unwilling to spend.

"We're not doing what the engineers are saying we need to be doing," said Gregory Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, an advocacy group representing a wide range of motorists.

"Unfortunately when you consistently underinvest in roads and bridges ... this is the dangerous consequence," Cohen said of Wednesday's deadly Mississippi River bridge collapse in Minneapolis. He said engineers have estimated US$75 billion a year is needed just to keep highways and bridges from further deterioration, but that only around US$60 billion a year is being provided.

A bridge is typically judged structurally deficient if heavy trucks are banned from it or there are other weight restrictions, if it needs immediate work to stay open or if it is closed. In any case, such a bridge is considered in need of considerable maintenance, rehabilitation or even replacement.

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