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Are America's Bridges Safe?

Jun 11, 2010 - 9:57:55 PM | By Jason McGlone
The question itself seems to be somewhat loaded--are America's bridges safe?  Merely asking a question like this automatically results in a sort of knee-jerk response, and that doesn't seem to be a particularly prudent way to approach any kind of article.  So, in brief: I could have put some fear-mongering article together about how every bridge in the country is going to crumble into dust over the next few months, but we all know that's not going to happen.

Back to the question: are America's bridges safe?

The quick answer is this: probably.  Well, most of them, anyway.

When the I-35 bridge collapsed a few years back in Minneapolis, the event uncovered a lot of issues with late bridge inspections (in 2007, approximately 17,000 bridges went more than the required two years between inspections), state employees faking bridge inspections, and generally lax enforcement when it came to bridge inspection rules.  It should be noted that despite the I-35 collapse as a nasty example of a woeful percentage of structurally deficient bridges in the United States (27% in 2003; I'm not certain what the nationwide percentage was at the time of the I-35 collapse).  This percentage hasn't gotten too much lower in the last six years; the percentage of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges in the US in 2009 was still over 26%, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

This, of course, begs the question: what makes a bridge structurally deficient or functionally obsolete?

Structurally deficient bridges are, by definition, "those that are restricted to light vehicles, require immediate rehabilitation to remain open, or are closed," according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.  This means that bridges meeting these criteria tend to be in legitimately bad shape; the percentage of bridges that make up the 26% in the most current statistic is relatively low--although any percentage of structurally deficient bridges could be considered to be too high.

Functionally obsolete bridges are a different matter.  They are defined as, "One that was built to standards that are not used today. These bridges are not automatically rated as structurally deficient, nor are they inherently unsafe. Functionally obsolete bridges are those that do not have adequate lane widths, shoulder widths, or vertical clearances to serve current traffic demand or to meet the current geometric standards, or those that may be occasionally flooded."  This definition comes from the Iowa Department of Transportation and, if you're like me, it's likely that you said to yourself as you read it, "Oh, I drove on about five of those bridges today."  As you might guess, it's these bridges that make up the great majority of those bridges within that 26% figure, and it's also these bridges that states need to insure get inspected within the required time frame of two years.

Of course, for state citizens to ensure that these inspections are getting done within this time frame may prove to be difficult; for those interested in doing so, however, you might contact your state's Department of Transportation (or similarly-named office) for more information about how its bridge inspection processes and policies are constructed and executed.  This isn't to say they'll be completely willing to just hand out whatever information they have, but there's a high chance that some portion of this information is public--part of the taxes you're paying, after all, are going to ensure that the bridges are safe at a minimum.

It may also do you well, as someone who drives for a living, to familiarize yourself with the terminologies, emerging technologies, and current events surrounding bridges and highways--including any serious issues with respect to the safety of any particular bridges.  There are numerous places on the web that you might be able to do this, and you'll find more in the related links at the end of this story--but your best bet is likely going to be the Federal Highway Administration (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov), an office within the U.S. Department of Transportation.  The FHWA keeps an e-library of information on bridges and, while I spent quite a bit of time sifting through the info they've got there, I barely scratched the surface.

Another helpful source of information, if you're willing to sift through some jargon and statistical data, is http://www.nationalbridges.com.  This website is essentially an exhaustive database of the bridges in the United States and information about them.  You can sort the data according to any number of criteria, and if you're looking for specific information on specific bridges, this is pretty much your one-stop shop.

In the end, though, the question still remains--are our bridges safe?  And the answer, of course, is that many of them, the great majority of them, are unequivocally safe.  Provided that our individual states are conducting the required bridge inspections on time and in a way that's complete and competent, then you can expect that our bridges will continue to be safe, and that those which aren't safe will be either shut down or relegated to light traffic only.

Further reading:
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22262284/

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20998261/
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23020686/
http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/bridge/elibrary.htm
http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/technologyandresearch/a/bridgesafety.htm
http://nationalbridges.com/
http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/fact-sheet/bridges
http://www.bts.gov/publications/transportation_statistics_annual_report/2003/html/chapter_02/bridge_condition.html
http://www.iowadot.gov/subcommittee/faq.aspx


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