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NCDOT Says State Bridges Are Structurally Sound

Mon September 24, 2007 - Southeast Edition
Gary D. Robertson - ASSOCIATED PRESS

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) North Carolina motorists can feel safe traveling on state-maintained bridges even though the spans need an additional $285 million in repairs that’s not budgeted this year, an engineer told the Board of Transportation Sept. 5.

“We don’t allow any unsafe bridges to stay open,” said Dan Holderman, the assistant state bridge maintenance engineer in a presentation to board members. “Every bridge is out there is safe … for the (weight) capacity that is posted.”

The stability of the 17,300 state-owned and maintained bridges, culverts and smaller spans has received increased scrutiny since Aug. 1, when 13 people were killed and 100 injured in the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis.

Following a Federal Highway Administration request the day after the collapse, North Carolina transportation officials inspected the only bridge in the state identified as similar in design to the Minnesota bridge.

No serious problems were found on the 51-year-old deck-truss bridge on NC Highway 273 in southeast Gaston County, the Transportation Department said.

In the following weeks, department crews inspected about 75 additional “fracture critical” bridges, Holderman said. Fracture critical means the failure of a single beam or pin could cause the entire bridge to collapse.

The inspections led to one immediate, minor repair on a 45-ft.-long truss bridge crossing Sand Creek on state Road 2786 in Buncombe County, DOT spokesman Ernie Seneca said.

Inspection analysts will need two to three months to review data to determine if other bridges need repairs, said Don Idol, the state’s assistant bridge inspection engineer.

The FHA rates approximately 2,200 bridges in North Carolina as structurally deficient and another 3,000 as “functionally obsolete,” according to Holderman’s report.

A bridge is considered substandard if it falls into either category, but that designation doesn’t mean the span is unsafe. The bridge may require load restrictions or height limits, for example.

Roughly one-third of the state’s bridges were built in the 1950s and 1960s, so many are showing their age, Holderman said. About 4,000 bridges must be monitored closely because they have wooden parts.

The annual bridge maintenance budget is about $65 million, but inspectors estimate there’s $350 million in work that needs to be done, Seneca said.

Board member Nancy Dunn of Winston-Salem was disappointed in that $285 million difference, which exists even though maintenance spending has taken up a large percentage of the department’s budget in recent years.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that we couldn’t find the funds to do what’s needed,” she said.

Eliminating or replacing all of the state’s structurally deficient bridges would cost $5 billion, Holderman said. Federal money is available to replace bridges at greatest risk of failure.

The state’s inspection efforts can’t prevent every problem, Holderman said. Flash flooding in Cleveland County in 2004 caused one rural bridge to give way, killing one person when vehicles plunged into a swollen creek.

“We try our best to keep our bridges safe,” he said.

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