Many aging N.C. bridges need repairs costing billions

North Carolina’s aging bridges need improvements, but state money is short and repairs could be a long way off for some.

Many state bridges were built in the 1950s and 1960s, and increased traffic has accelerated their decay. Rural bridges are particularly at risk, with 30 percent rated substandard, according to a recent study by nonprofit transportation research group TRIP.

It would cost $16 billion to replace all of the bridges that have been deemed substandard, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Substandard bridges fall into two different categories – functionally obsolete, meaning that they are too small for the traffic they carry, and structurally deficient, meaning that they have some sort of deterioration.

To repair or preserve the substandard bridges, instead of replacing them, would cost $11 billion. In 2011, the N.C. DOT began a two-year, $450 million bridge improvement program aimed at repairs and replacements.

State officials said no bridge poses an immediate danger.

“I wouldn’t have concerns over anybody crossing any bridges that we have,” said Garland Haywood, bridge program manager for N.C. DOT’s Division 10, which includes Mecklenburg and neighboring counties. “With so many bridges aging statewide, we’re just trying to keep in front of that curve.”

Of North Carolina’s 18,000 bridges, 12 percent are structurally deficient and 18 percent are functionally obsolete, according to TRIP.

Different types of bridges tend to face different problems, said N.C. DOT spokeswoman Nicole Meister. Urban bridges, which generally carry more traffic, are more likely to be classified as functionally obsolete. Rural bridges are more likely to be structurally deficient.

Fourteen percent of the state’s rural bridges are structurally deficient, according to TRIP. Only 13 states – including Pennsylvania, which tops the list at 25 percent – have a higher percentage. An additional 16 percent of rural bridges are functionally obsolete.

North Carolina does not currently receive any federal funding specifically for bridges, though a portion of federal money for highways is used to complete work on highway bridges.

After the bridge improvement pilot program ended in 2013, the program was extended for two more years and approximately $350 million more. The program involves sending crews to individual bridges to assess the possibilities for rehabilitation and preservation versus complete replacement.

“What that’s really enabled us to do is stretch our limited money a lot further,” Meister said.

So far, the state has worked on 1,000 bridges through the program, Meister said.

The transportation division that includes Anson, Cabarrus, Stanly and Union counties in addition to Mecklenburg has more than 50 of those bridges, Haywood said.

But with a number of other projects to fund, including highway and railway work, the division’s budget for bridges has been cut nearly in half over the past few years – from approximately $13 million in 2012-13 to $9 million in 2013-14, with $7 million projected for 2014-15.

North Carolina is not the only state dealing with aging bridges. A large number of bridges across the country were built 40 to 50 years ago, and the lifespan for the average bridge is 50 years before serious repairs are needed, said David Goldberg, a spokesman for the national policy organization Transportation for America.

Without much federal funding specifically for bridges, many states now find themselves in a position where the amount of money available does not match the money needed for improvements.

“As needs rise, money is not rising along with them,” Goldberg said. Reporter Gavin Off contributed.

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