1 year after collapse, bridge repairs still lag

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 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.

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.

“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 responsibility 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.

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.

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.