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Little Progress Since Bridge Collapse

ROBERT TANNER, STEVE KARNOWSKI and FRANK BASS | July 30, 2008 09:16 PM EST | AP

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The Minneapolis skyline rises in the distance, Tuesday, July 22, 2008 in this view of the new Interstate 35W bridge which replaces the old bridge which collapsed into the Mississippi River, Aug. 1,2007, killing 13 people and injuring more than 100. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

MINNEAPOLIS — 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.

But in 33 states and Washington, D.C., there was no significant new spending, and little debate.

The AP started its review by identifying the 20 most heavily trafficked structurally deficient bridges in each state, using a Federal Highway Administration inventory of data submitted by states.

But the inventory, which includes about 70,000 structurally deficient bridges nationwide, doesn't reflect the latest work _ most of that information from the states was gathered before the collapse.

So the AP asked state transportation departments to explain the current status of repairs on each of those bridges and disclose future plans and whether officials had identified any new heavily trafficked, structurally deficient bridges since the last update to the federal government.

Some states wound up with more than 20 structurally deficient bridges in the AP analysis because they had additional, newly categorized, busy bridges that were structurally deficient.

Understandably, Minnesota's response has been among the most vigorous.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature, with some Republican help, overrode GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of the $6.6 billion transportation spending plan, which raised the gas tax, local sales taxes and vehicle registration fees. The Senate then sacked his transportation commissioner, who had resisted the increased spending and higher taxes.

In June, a new commissioner outlined a $2.5 billion draft bridge improvement plan that would replace 11 major spans over the next decade using the new money. By 2018, 120 bridges that lack structural redundancies _ like the doomed I-35W bridge _ or that rank poorly on the structural sufficiency scale would be repaired, replaced or under construction.

Minnesota officials abruptly closed or partially closed three busy bridges after those inspections found flaws. The state also moved swiftly to replace the I-35W bridge.

Contractors aim to complete work by Sept. 15 _ 100 days ahead of the deadline.

Missouri was another bright spot, where the Legislature moved ahead on a stalled bridge-improvement plan that was put on a fast track weeks after the Minneapolis collapse.

Lawmakers agreed on a measure to award a single 30-year contract to fix and maintain 802 of the state's worst bridges, despite a price tag of $600 million that analysts say could easily double over the contract's lifetime.

Politics dashed ambitious plans in Colorado and Virginia.

Despite initial support from the governor, months of study and accusations that opponents were playing "structurally deficient bridge roulette," Colorado lawmakers killed proposals to raise car registration fees, sales and gas taxes.

In Virginia, transportation may have been the biggest single issue of the last several years. The governor's $1 billion transportation plan became a political, partisan showdown and, despite a special session in July, wound up a stalemate.

The debate echoes from statehouses to Washington.

Last week, the U.S. House overwhelmingly approved another $1 billion for bridge work, though the White House has opposed the increase and has promised a veto.

The nation's bridges depend significantly on the federal government. In 2004, $10.5 billion was invested across the country on bridge improvements, according to the FHWA. The federal Highway Bridge Program provided $5.1 billion, with another $1.5 billion coming from other federal aid; states and local government paid $3.9 billion.

Much of the federal support comes out of the Highway Trust Fund, which is financed largely through fuel taxes _ a potential problem because high pump prices have led people to drive less.

"The federal government has basically ignored infrastructure at every level," said Rendell, who, with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has launched a group called Building America's Future to demand infrastructure investment. "They've just literally abdicated their responsibility."

According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, a projected $14 billion shortfall means only about $27 billion in federal money will be available next year to states and local governments for new highway and bridge investments _ a 34 percent reduction _ even though the current federal highway act calls for spending $41 billion a year.

The risks of another Minneapolis-style collapse aren't getting smaller as bridges age and traffic and weather take their toll.

Even annual inspections _ twice as often as the standard federal requirement _ don't guarantee a bridge is safe.

On Saturday afternoon, 1,200 pounds of concrete chunks fell from the underside of a 50-year-old bridge in St. Paul over I-35E, a few miles from last summer's fatal collapse.

Two cars were damaged but nobody was injured. The bridge was inspected last August; since it is structurally deficient, it was due for another inspection soon.

The bridge is safe to carry traffic, said Dan Dorgan, Minnesota's chief bridge engineer, though the previous inspection had noted that deteriorating concrete had been fixed.

"It is not acceptable for us to have concrete falling off a bridge," he said.

___

Associated Press Writer Steve Karnowski reported from Minneapolis, AP National Writer Robert Tanner reported from New York, and Associated Press Writer Frank Bass reported from East Dover, Vt.

Filed by Max Follmer  |  Report Corrections