- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Each day, an average of more than 31 million cars, trucks and their drivers rumble over 37,809 U.S. bridges that inspectors consider "basically intolerable, requiring high priority of replacement."
An average of more than 60 million vehicles daily cross 19,567 other spans considered so battered they require quick "corrective action."
Hundreds of those intolerable bridges are located in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. And many if not most of the defective spans are not "posted." They display no warnings and no restrictions. Drivers who might be skittish about zipping across a faulty span get no clue that their trip across a river, railway, highway or canyon involves even the tiniest risk.
While some bridges have collapsed, highway officials insist that the risk that some or any of the current dilapidated bridges will break apart is minimal. They indicate that even spans that are shedding bolts, strips of metal and chunks of concrete can be safe. For a time.
Safety officials have a different view. They say that, as failing bridges disintegrate, they almost always create situations that are dangerous, are at times life-threatening and inevitably damage the economy.
An analysis by The Washington Times of the Federal Highway Administration's huge National Bridge Inventory database reveals the sad shape of U.S. bridges. Engineers, highway safety specialists and transportation policy advocates say the analysis by The Times shows that even in a time of huge budget surpluses, important segments of the nation's infrastructure continue to be poorly maintained.
Samuel Schwartz, head of Manhattan-based Schwartz Engineering and an engineering professor at New York's Cooper Union college, calls the findings worrisome, but "no surprise."
"The United States has not done a good job of maintenance. We treat our infrastructure as if it were disposable," Mr. Schwartz says.
"The government treats bridges and the rest of the infrastructure with the same attention it might give a pencil purchased by the Agriculture Department," adds Bill Fay, chief executive of the American Highway Users Alliance.
Clifton Winston, a transportation specialist at the Brookings Institution and former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, agrees. He says, "These data speak to the management of the nation's infrastructure. Is having so many faulty bridges and deferring maintenance an effective way to run the operation? I think not."
The American Society of Civil Engineers has for years charged that "America has been seriously under-investing in needed road and bridge repairs, and failing to even maintain the substandard conditions we have." In a statement, the society cautions that ignoring the infrastructure "is a dangerous trend that is affecting highway safety as well as the health of the American economy."
The society plans to issue a new assessment of the nation's bridges next month. The word is that the society considers the situation a trifle better than it was three years ago. At that time, the society found, "Nearly one of every three bridges (31.4 percent) is rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete."
Evidence supporting critics of the nation's bridge maintenance system resides in the reports of state bridge inspectors. The reports are forwarded to the Federal Highway Administration by the transportation agencies of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
The reports yield detailed descriptions and evaluations of the 688,417 U.S. "structures … erected over a depression or an obstruction … carrying traffic or other moving loads and having … a roadway of more than 20 feet."
The administration's files show that the biggest laggard in replacing such faulty structures is the federal government. It owns 1,322 of them.
The National Park Service alone is responsible for 914 badly maintained bridges, making it the biggest laggard's biggest laggard.
Park Service officials don't deny it.
"We actually focus our money on bridges at the sacrifice of our roads. But we have a $169 million backlog of bridge work and a $3.26 billion backlog on roads. By backlog, I mean money we need and don't have," says Mark Hartsoe, the Park Roads Program Manager.
The government's files reveal that:
More than 5,800 of the nation's "intolerable" spans are cited as having "general structure deterioration or inadequate strength." The rest have various other serious technical flaws.
Of the District's 351 bridges, two need replacing and 40 must be repaired soon.
The two D.C. bridges in need of replacement are both in Northeast, one on Kenilworth Avenue and the other on Taylor Street near the Catholic University campus. Together, they accommodate an average 124,800 vehicles daily. The others transport 567,295 total vehicles each day.
The National Park Service owns 28 of the District's defective spans. "Other federal agencies" own three. Half of the deteriorating bridges are not posted as such.
Maryland has 5,925 bridges; 72 need replacement and 171 urgently need fixing.
The bridges that need replacing carry 204,771 vehicles on average each day. The other faulty spans transport 1,788,106 vehicles daily.
Fifty-five of Maryland's deficient bridges belong to the Park Service. Thirty-nine have no posted warnings.
Virginia has 16,377 bridges; 288 need to be replaced and 308 require urgent repairs.
On average, 650,237 vehicles traverse the most vulnerable Virginia bridges. The bridges needing only repair handle 1,457,048 cars and trucks a day.
Pennsylvania has 27,025 bridges, with 762 requiring replacement and 1,201 needing repairs. West Virginia has 8,090 spans, with 287 to replace and 266 to quickly fix.
It is well known that flawed bridges do fall down.
There's the famous 1983 collapse of a Connecticut Turnpike bridge that plunged into the Mianus River at Greenwich. Four vehicles hurtled 70 feet into the river, killing four, creating massive disruptions of traffic and igniting bitter political feuds in communities overrun by detoured cars and big trucks.
In Tennessee, four cars and a tractor-trailer dropped into the Hatchie River, 50 miles north of Memphis, when an 84-foot section of U.S. 51 crumpled, killing eight.
That was in 1989. Six years later, five died when a bridge on Interstate 5 near Coalinga, Calif., fell into a raging stream. And in 1999, a 15-by-20-foot slab of Lee's Bridge on Route 117 in Massachusetts crumbled without killing anyone.
There are a number of such tales. One in particular illustrates the dire consequences that can result from deferring bridge repairs:
Three years ago, in Woodsville, N.H., a 6-year-old girl was hit by a car at the entrance of the town's historic old and failing bridge. Traffic on the posted span had been limited to one car at a time, with no heavy vehicles permitted.
The nearest emergency team and ambulance were two miles away on the bridge's opposite side. The ambulance had to take a 20-minute detour to reach the child. She died just before the ambulance arrived.
Such examples notwithstanding, state highway officials insist there's little danger a failing bridge will collapse. They say they post warnings in time, bar trucks and limit automobile traffic when spans weaken. And when the bridges become too feeble, they are closed.
But safety specialists point out that limiting traffic and closing bridges invites accidents and a series of secondary problems.
"What typically happens is that when bridges are posted, trucks are prohibited, sending them miles out of the way and through commercial or residential areas to get to the next bridge. Lanes are shut down. This causes congestion, pollution, anger and road rage," says Mr. Schwartz, the engineer.
He and others emphasize that limiting traffic often means emergency vehicles are detoured. And deferring maintenance ultimately wastes time and money.
Delaying maintenance ultimately can cause situations in which vital repairs on a bridge must finally proceed even as other desperately needed road or bridge work in an area is done, causing gigantic tie-ups that enraged drivers perceive as poor planning.
"The infrastructure has no constituency," Mr. Schwartz explains. "Even those who clamor are clamoring for building new bridges and things that yield a lot of jobs big capital projects. No one clamors for lubricating the underside of a bridge." He says, "I wrote an article once on the theme of 'Let's make corrosion control sexy.' It didn't turn anyone on."
Ed Hutchins, director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian research center, contends that federal and state funds earmarked for bridge and road maintenance often are diverted to funding mass transit and major new projects. That facilitates hiring more union workers and spending more on contractors, he says, adding:
"If you want to buy votes, it makes sense to go with the more expensive systems, even if, in the end, you don't help the transportation situation very much."
Mr. Winston, the Brookings scholar, declares there is "no question" that there are "huge inefficiencies in regard to public management of the highway system. There are so many ways the management can go wrong: jobs not priced right, not built right. There are pork-barrel appropriations."
Consequently, Mr. Winston says, policy-makers increasingly are asking if it makes sense to take highway and bridge maintenance out of government hands and turn the management over to private concerns.
Indeed, in its "Handbook for Congress," the Cato Institute advises lawmakers to abolish the Department of Transportation and do just that.
Former Sen. Connie Mack, Florida Republican, and former Rep. John Kasich, Ohio Republican, introduced legislation that would have returned federal gasoline-tax revenues to the states along with total responsibility for maintaining roads and bridges. The legislation went nowhere.
As the system now works, state and local inspectors typically check the bridges in their area every two years and file their findings with the federal government. The Department of Transportation uses their reports as a basis for allocating highway grants to the states.
Joseph Miller, Maryland's Chief of Bridge Inspection and Remedial Engineering, says his 18 inspectors are constantly checking bridges. County inspectors supposedly check local spans, too. If they don't, state inspectors do it for them and bill the county for the service.
The inspectors post warnings on problem spans and report to Mr. Miller the ones needing major rehabilitation or replacement. Mr. Miller says he and his assistant check and recheck the most decrepit bridges, "to prioritize the candidates."
He explains, "We have $45 million a year for replacement and rehabilitation. So each spring we sit down and say, 'OK, which bridges should be selected for funding?' "
That is pretty much the way all states, the National Park Service and other federal agencies nibble away at the bridge problem.
Yet, says Mr. Schwartz, if government put the money into maintenance, "and did the job right, the total cost of bridge work would drop dramatically. Then bridges would live longer, and we wouldn't have the huge capital expenditures and secondary costs like increased congestion and accidents."

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