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Minnesota Bridge Tragedy Spurs Other States to Action

Mon August 20, 2007 - Northeast Edition
James A. Merolla



Virtually every state in the country is scurrying under a federal mandate to inspect the tens of thousands of bridges, trestles and concrete spans that cross and connect their roads in the wake of the fatal August collapse of a highway bridge in Minneapolis that shocked the nation.

When the eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge buckled during the evening rush hour in Minneapolis — sending dozens of cars plummeting more than 60 ft. into the Mississippi River — state officials were bombarded with inspection questions. They responded that the bridge across the River, under repair at the time, had passed annual inspections, although not with flying colors. Since then, transportation officials from Maine to Montana have been scrambling to find their own deficiencies.

Southern New England is no exception. Starting mere days after the tragedy, the Departments of Transportation in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts began immediate review inspections on bridges where any potential failure could be sudden and catastrophic.

Half of R.I.’s Bridges ’Structurally Deficient’

According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), more than half of Rhode Island’s 753 bridges are considered “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete.” This eyebrow-raising statistic is considered the highest percentage of any state in the nation.

“On the structurally deficient, it doesn’t mean they are in danger of collapsing,” said RIDOT Director Jerry Williams in a series of interviews with local newspapers and radio stations.

“It could mean they are scheduled for replacement in five or six years, for example,” Williams said. “If you look at a number of our bridges, they have been shored up by either timber or steel, and that is done to make sure of the integrity of the bridge. But obviously, you don’t want to maintain that for 20 years. While they are safe to travel on, it is something where they need to be rehabbed or replaced in order to take them out of that category.”

According to Williams, the term “functionally obsolete” means the bridge is not the ideal width or height for the job is has to do, and is not necessarily unsafe.

After meeting with DOT engineers and a representative of the F.H.A., Kazem Farhoumand, the DOT’s deputy chief engineer and head of the agency’s design section, repeated the state’s assurances that Rhode Island’s bridges are safe. But he said the agency will review reports of past inspections and conduct some re-inspections through August and beyond.

Checking Again to Find ’Redundancies’

Farhoumand added that his agency expects the list of bridges to inspect will include 35 to 40 Rhode Island spans.

“I’m hoping to wrap everything up in the next few weeks,” he said. The inspections will be done by the five engineering companies the DOT hires for its regular inspections, Farhoumand added.

The state hires the five private firms to inspect bridges at a cost of $2.5 million per year, according to Williams.

There are 756 bridges of the type that collapsed in Minnesota — a “steel-deck truss bridge” — in the entire country. However, none of them are in Rhode Island, according to the FHA.

Instead, the DOT is looking at bridges with “little redundancy built into their design,” according to Williams. Bridges with redundant designs can suffer failure without collapsing.

“It gives you time to go out there and address it,” Farhoumand said.

Truss bridges like the one in Minneapolis have little redundancy.

“If you lose one member [of the structure], you could have a big problem,” Farhoumand told the press.

Farhoumand said the Sakonnet River Bridge, which carries Route 24 from Tiverton to Portsmouth, will be one of the first bridges on the list. Its design includes two kinds of spans that lack redundancy. Its three main spans are based on trusses, and the rest are supported by girders, one on each side, he said, making it vulnerable if one fails.

That bridge is being completely replaced in the next three years, however, with pre-construction of the $129 million project already under way.

Another key bridge based on girders, Farhoumand added, is the one carrying Route 95 across the Blackstone River in Pawtucket. Other bridges that will get attention include two over railroad tracks — the Roger Williams Avenue Bridge in Providence and the Park Avenue Bridge in Cranston.

Another truss bridge is the Point Street Bridge, across the Providence River. In addition, the reinforced concrete bridges carrying Route 195 through Providence are terribly outdated, but that will be replaced when the section of Route 195 near downtown Providence is replaced by the new $577 million highway project currently being constructed (including 14 new bridges within it).

State officials blame the state’s old infrastructure, its dense population and the winter climate for the percentage of bridges considered deficient in some way.

Governor Don Carcieri has said that state officials “have every reason to believe” that every Rhode Island bridge currently open to traffic is safe. “We had the same questions as everyone else: Are Rhode Island bridges safe and are any of our bridges in danger of collapsing?” Carcieri said in a news release.

But the Governor added that many of the bridges “are in less than perfect condition.” He said that though currently safe for travel, “bridges deemed ’structurally deficient’ will require repairs in the coming years to ensure their future safety.”

Those repairs, he said, “will require a huge investment of scarce dollars.” He is imploring the state legislature to ask for federal assistance, but they will clearly have to get in a very, very long line.

Connecticut’s Governor Calls for ’Aggressive’ Inspections

Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell said that her state’s Department of Transportation has completed inspections on more than a third of the bridges that had — until recently — been on a four-year inspection rotation.

In an Aug. 2 letter to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rell said she offered the expertise, equipment and personnel of Connecticut’s DOT as Minnesota tries to cope with the bridge collapse that will take at least all of August to clean up, at an estimated cost of $15 to $16 million.

In June, Governor Rell had already ordered that all 5,354 bridges in the state be inspected at least every two years. Prior to that order, some 1,144 bridges (of the 5,354) classified as being in fair condition or better were on a four-year inspection schedule.

In order to move the DOT’s bridge inspection program to a two-year cycle, 561 of the 1,144 bridges were identified as needing an inspection before Sept. 30. To date, 180 of the 561 bridges requiring inspections have been completed; the remainder will be completed by Sept. 30, according to the governor’s press office.

“The DOT is committed to moving aggressively to a two-year bridge inspection program and these numbers demonstrate that commitment,” Gov. Rell said. “The safety of the public is our top priority and the people of Connecticut can be assured that we are making every effort to regularly inspect all of our bridges and keep them safe and well-maintained.”

According to the governor’s office, Connecticut has a total of 5,354 bridges:

• 1,144 that had been on a four-year inspection cycle and are now on a two-year cycle

• 4,054 that were already on a two-year cycle

• 156 that had been on more frequent inspection cycle

The Governor’s comments came just a day after the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. The Connecticut DOT also has identified a handful (10 or fewer) of its bridges as having a similar design to the steel arch deck truss design that doomed the Minnesota span.

In addition, the Commissioner directed the DOT bridge inspection unit to develop a report detailing the inspection schedule for Connecticut’s steel arch deck truss bridges, including any deficiencies noted and corrective actions taken in the recent past. The Commissioner also noted that Gov. Rell’s budget for the year that began July 1 includes 81 new inspector positions, and some of those will be dedicated to bridge inspection teams.

Offers Help, Expertise to Minnesota

In her letter to the Minnesota governor, Rell wrote, in part: “Connecticut suffered a similar tragedy in June of 1983 when the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 in Greenwich collapsed and we are familiar with the types of questions you will need to ask,” the Governor wrote. “In addition to my sympathy, I offer you the expertise of the Connecticut DOT and any personnel or equipment you may need.”

More than 400 bridges in Connecticut are rated as “structurally deficient” in some way, and 10 bridges in the state are similar in design to the one that collapsed.

Perhaps the best known Connecticut bridge of similar design is the Gold Star bridge over the Thames River between New London and Groton. It is actually two bridges, side-by-side, for Interstate 95 North and South.

The DOT said it was inspected two years ago and is currently slated for inspection.

Another well-known bridge of similar design is the Route 8 bridge over the Housatonic River in Shelton, also known as the Commodore Hull bridge. The DOT said it was last inspected last year and is undergoing inspection now. The DOT also said some older bridges are inspected more often.

The other bridges of similar design are:

• East Haddam; the west side of the Route 82 bridge over the Connecticut River near the opera house.

• Middlebury; the South Street bridge over I-84.

• New Haven; East Rock Road over the Mill River.

• Norwich; Route 169 over the Shetucket.

• Salisbury; the Route 7 bridge over the Housatonic.

• Westport; the Merritt Parkway over the Saugatuck.

• Windham; Route 661 over the Willimantic.

The Commodore Hull bridge is one of the state bridges listed as “structurally deficient” by DOT inspectors.

In this case, the bridge “has structural deficiencies or poor rating for the substructure, which is the pilings, the part that is under water or near water,” DOT spokesman Judd Everhart said.

Bridge ratings are in three areas: The substructure, like on the Commodore Hull, the superstructure, which is basically the metal, and the deck, where the cars meet the asphalt.

“Just because a bridge has a poor rating in a given category does not mean it is unsafe by any means,” Everhart added.

Massachusetts Shows “No Red Flags”

Also in the tragic wake, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick immediately asked transportation officials in the Commonwealth to review bridge inspection records to make sure “nothing’s been missed.”

According to state figures, there are 5,050 bridges in Massachusetts, including 2,941, which cross over water.

The number of structurally deficient bridges in Massachusetts has steadily declined from 864 in 1991 to the current number of 506, according to state transportation records.

Patrick said that Massachusetts has 27 bridges with a similar design to the Minneapolis bridge, and he admitted to being worried about hidden problems.

“It does make me anxious about the legacy of neglect that we are inheriting in this administration,” said Democrat Patrick, taking a political shot at a slew of Republican gubernatorial predecessors who were in place during the entire construction and the tragic collapse of a concrete section of a Big Dig tunnel that killed a woman last summer.

Several days after making this announcement, examinations of inspection reports conducted on those bridges showed “no red flags,” Gov. Patrick said.

One of the main bridges in question with a similar design is the busy Longfellow Bridge spanning the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge.

A key difference between the Minneapolis bridge and 27 similarly built bridges in Massachusetts is the steel arch truss structure that collapsed in Minneapolis had welded joints, while the Massachusetts bridges have bolted joints, Patrick said.

A Massachusetts commission recently noted there is a $15-billion to $19-billion shortfall for various transportation projects in the Bay State. Some 36 percent of Massachusetts bridges are deficient or functionally obsolete, according the federal highway numbers, but John Lamontagne, spokesman of the state Executive Office of Public Safety, said his state has only an average of 12 percent structurally deficient bridges, approximately the same as the national average.

Massachusetts’ bridge inspection program is tougher than the federal program, which requires a visual inspection every two years. MassHighway requires a full, hands-on inspection of all bridges. Bridges in poor condition or worse are inspected every six months to a year.

“We have a very aggressive inspection program,” Lamontagne said. “On an annual basis, our inspectors perform 2,400 above water inspections and roughly 350 underwater inspections.”

Federal investigators warn that it could take up to 18 months to complete their probe into why Minnesota’s busiest bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River. CEG