America's Bridges Still Falling Down

In this March 17, 2008 file photo, a crack in a concrete support pillar to Interstate 95 is shown in Philadelphia. Repairs to the crack will require closure of both northbound and southbound lanes of the highway north of the city, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesman Gene Blaum said. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

A year after the worst U.S. bridge collapse in a generation brought calls for immediate repairs to other spans, two of every three of the busiest problem bridges in each state - carrying nearly 40 million vehicles a day - have had no work beyond regular maintenance.

An Associated Press review of repairs on each state's 20 most-traveled bridges with structural deficiencies found just 12 percent have been fixed. In most states, the most common approach was to plan for repairs later rather than fix problems now.

The bridges reviewed by the AP - 1,020 in all - are not in imminent danger of collapse, state engineers and highway officials say. But the officials acknowledge the structures need improvement, many sooner rather than later.

The collapse of the eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge into the Mississippi River on Aug. 1, 2007, killed 13 people and brought immediate calls for repairs to bridges across the nation.

The failure to follow through was not because of lack of effort, officials said. Soaring construction costs, budget shortages, election-year politics, a backlog of bridge projects, competing highway repairs and bureaucracy often held bridge work to only incremental progress.

The AP gathered information on repair status from 48 states and Washington, D.C. In six states, data could not be obtained for some locally owned bridges. Louisiana and Nevada failed to respond.

The AP findings:

  • Sixty-four percent of the bridges received no work beyond regular maintenance, though most were targeted for some kind of future work.

  • Twelve percent had their structural defects fixed - usually through a major rehabilitation or outright replacement.

  • An additional 24 percent have seen a partial improvement, either through a short-term repair to temporarily address the defect or an ongoing project that is not yet complete.

    The worst were Indiana, Oklahoma, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where work was conducted on only one of each state's 20 most heavily traveled structurally deficient bridges.

    "At some point, relying on miracles is not going to be the best way to manage our system," said Pete Rahn, the transportation commissioner of Missouri. "I would pray we don't have to have another disaster to bring about the right attention to this. I see very little political will there."

    Adds Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell: "The Minneapolis incident obviously caused people to stand up and take notice, but I think it got dwarfed by the bad economic news."

    "There's plenty of blame to go around," said Rendell, who has joined a national campaign to demand more federal investment in infrastructure. He argues the federal government bears a larger share than states, which are struggling to make do with limited help.

    Rahn, one of many state transportation officials interviewed who said it is long past time for Congress and the states to invest in bridges and roads, blames the federal government most of all.

    But as Congress debates highway spending, some members criticize states for not devoting enough highway money to bridges. Also, the Bush administration has promised to veto the latest $1 billion proposed increase, itself a fraction of the estimated $140 billion needed for repairs on bridges alone.

    "Thirteen people were killed and not much happened," said engineer William Schutt, a critic of the status quo of bridge assessment and repair. "Who's to blame? Congress, the American people - for putting up with it."

    Bridges deemed structurally deficient have elements that need monitoring and parts that need to be scheduled for repair or replacement. The designation does not necessarily mean a bridge is unsafe, although it is one of the factors used to determine when a bridge is at risk, and which ones quality for federal money.

    "Structural deficiency ultimately determines whether a bridge will stand or fall," said Kris Kolluri, New Jersey's transportation commissioner. But recognizing the problem is only the first step.

    "If you look at the full picture of bridges and the task that transportation professionals have," Kolluri said, "it's an overwhelming task."

    The Minneapolis bridge, one of the busiest in Minnesota, collapsed during a Wednesday evening rush hour into a tangle of steel and concrete and crushed cars. In addition to the 13 killed, 145 people were injured. A school bus with 52 children aboard that came to rest on an angled piece of pavement provided one of the enduring images of the tragedy.

    Investigators have yet to issue their final determination on the cause of the Minneapolis collapse but have said an error in the original design was the critical factor. Certain gussets - steel plates that fastened the trusses together - were roughly half the 1-inch thickness they should have been, investigators said. A National Transportation Safety Board lab report made public Tuesday noted at least two gussets broke partially along lines of corrosion.

    The disaster has generated a rush of emergency bridge inspections, an extra $1 billion from Congress for bridge repairs so far and vows from leaders to tackle the problems spotlighted by the tragedy.

    Washington state Gov. Chris Gregoire called the I-35W collapse a "wake-up call to this nation." She vowed to tackle two of her state's overdue bridge projects, telling state lawmakers: "We need to take them down, not leave it to Mother Nature!" The Alaskan Way Viaduct along Seattle's waterfront is to be demolished by 2012, and work to replace the SR 520 floating bridge over Lake Washington should begin the same year.

    In all, 17 states proposed ambitious bridge and road spending totaling $13.7 billion. To date, $8.3 billion has won approval in six states, including $160 million in Maine, $600 million in Missouri and $6.6 billion in Minnesota.
    • CBSNews

    Comments

    Watch CBSN Live

    Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.