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More Than 70,000 Bridges Rated Deficient

August 02, 2007

More than 70,000 bridges across the country 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 $188 billion.

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

Separately, the Federal Highway Administration has said addressing the backlog of needed bridge repairs would cost at least $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 $75 billion a year is needed just to keep highways and bridges from further deterioration, but that only around $60 billion a year is being provided.

As 2007 began, at least 73,694 of the nation's 596,808 bridges, or about 12 percent, were classified as "structurally deficient," Federal Highway Administration figures show. They include 816 built as recently as the early 1990s and 3,871 that are nearly a century old,

It is unclear how many of those spans pose actual safety risks.

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.

Congressional leaders say the number of bridges in need of repair is too high and the funding too low.

"We should look at this tragedy that occurred as a wake-up call for us. We have, all over the country, crumbling infrastructure," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., adding that Congress could use the 2008 spending bills to address the issue.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who heads the Senate panel that controls transportation spending, said the Minneapolis catastrophe "is what I worry about every day. The lack of the investment in the infrastructure in this country is truly frightening, and we have got to get back on track in making sure that we make the investments to make sure that all of the people we represent are safe and secure."

She said the Bush administration has threatened vetoes when Democrats try to increase such spending.

Responding to the Democrats, White House deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel said, "Now is the time for all Americans to come together to comfort the victims, aid in the ongoing response and help the community rebuild."

He said, "It's unfortunate and unconscionable that Democratic leaders in Congress are trying to use this horrific event as an opportunity to launch partisan attacks."

Democrats were not alone in calling for more bridge funding.

"People think they're saving money by not investing in infrastructure, and the result is you have catastrophes like this," said Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., a member of the House transportation committee. "This is something that should spur us to action at the national level."

The federal government is now providing about $40 billion a year to improve and expand the nation's highways and bridges. Industry advocates say that's not enough even to maintain the infrastructure at its current level, and that number would have to rise by about $30 billion to bring about real improvement in aging, unsafe roads and bridges and in traffic congestion.

That's not likely to happen because the main source of revenue for roads and bridges, the federal highway trust fund, is failing to keep up with spending demand. The 18.3 cents a gallon in federal taxes hasn't changed since 1993, and the demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles could affect fuel consumption.

Funding isn't the only bridge issue getting attention after the Minnesota collapse.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said she had asked her department's inspector general to monitor the investigation, recommend short-term actions and evaluate the agency's overall bridge inspections.

"I plan to look at our program and determine whether we have the appropriate program in place," Peters told The Associated Press after touring the bridge site.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, most bridges in the U.S. Highway Bridge Inventory _ 83 percent _ are inspected every two years. About 12 percent, those in bad shape, are inspected annually, and 5 percent, those in very good shape, every four years.

The Department of Transportation's inspector general last year criticized the Highway Administration's oversight of interstate bridges. The March 2006 report said investigators found incorrect or outdated maximum weight calculations and weight limit postings in the National Bridge Inventory and in states' bridge databases and said the problems could pose safety hazards. The Highway Administration agreed that improvements in its oversight of state bridge inspections and data were needed.

Incorrect load ratings could endanger bridges by allowing heavier vehicles to cross than should, and could affect whether a bridge is properly identified as structurally deficient in the first place, the inspector general said.

The audit didn't identify any Minnesota bridges or mention the state beyond noting that 3 percent of its bridges were structurally deficient, placing it at the low end among states. It said those bridges were crossed by an average of 30,000 to 40,000 vehicles a day, putting it 13th among the states.

An analysis of 2006 Federal Highway Administration data found that Minnesota bridges were generally in better shape than those in other states. Only about 6 percent of the state's 20,000 bridges were listed as being structurally deficient. In Oklahoma, nearly 27 percent of bridges were cited by the federal government as being structurally deficient.

In Nemaha County in southeastern Nebraska, about 58 percent of 194 bridges are structurally deficient. More than 55 percent of neighboring Pawnee County's 188 bridges are in the same shape. Of the 10 worst-off counties for bridges, seven are in Oklahoma or Nebraska.

On the other end of the scale, at least 10 counties with a significant number of bridges have none that are structurally deficient, according to the latest government statistics. A half-dozen of those are in Texas.

Several governors on Wednesday ordered state transportation officials to inspect particular bridges or review their inspection procedures.

Beyond Minnesota, North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven said his state doesn't have any bridges similar to the Minneapolis bridge but he had asked state officials to review inspection procedures. Presidential hopeful and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson ordered an inspection of several steel-truss bridges in the state. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano directed state transportation officials to conduct a statewide review, starting with highly traveled bridges in urban areas.

___

Associated Press writers Jim Abrams, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Jennifer Kerr in Washington and Frank Bass in East Dover, Vt., contributed to this report.

Last update: 08/02/2007

(© 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)