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7,795 US bridges both structurally deficient and fracture critical

The Associated Press recently looked into the most recent National Bridge Inventory performed by the Federal Highway Administration and found some shocking information. Of the 607,380 bridges across the U.S. that are subject to uniform bridge inspection standards, 65,605 were categorized as “structurally deficient,” and 20,808 were considered “fracture critical.” Even more alarming, 7,795 were classified as both.

While highway safety experts told the AP that the dual classification doesn’t necessarily mean the bridges are twice as unsafe, they did say the risk of tragic motor vehicle accidents is higher. The combination indicates that at least one major component of the designated bridge is in significant disrepair and that the bridge lacks the lack structural redundancies necessary to prevent a collapse if a single, vital component should fail.

The inventory found at least one bridge with a dual designation open in all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. In four states, more than 600 bridges had the dual designation. According to BloombergBusinessweek, 302 bridges in California received both.

Unfortunately, these bridges are not limited to rural areas and back roads where the risk of collapse is lowest. On the contrary, bridges with one or even both red flags typically carry more than 29 million drivers every day.

Despite those disquieting numbers, however, the federal regulators interviewed by the AP insisted that each and every bridge in the U.S. that is open to traffic is safe. In fact, the reporters said the regulators couldn’t say that enough.

When bridges are found to have safety issues, the regulators explained, they are inspected more often and, in the riskiest cases, weight restrictions are put in place. Moreover, repairs and upgrades are happening all the time, so the numbers are constantly in flux. The number of bridges listed as dually-designated in California, reported at 302, could even now be lower.

Or higher, unfortunately. While Congressional interest was intense after the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W in Minneapolis, the AP points out, last year’s transportation bill eliminated even the dedicated bridge maintenance fund that was in place before that tragedy.

The bottom line, regulators say, is that we probably drive over dual-designation bridges every day, and sudden bridge collapses are statistically quite rare. We should worry more about other causes of motor vehicle accidents, for now.

Sources: 

  • NPR News, “10 Things: Making Sense Of Nation’s Bad Bridges,” Associated Press, Sept. 16, 2013
  • BloombergBusinessweek, “Future bleak for aging county bridges in Kansas,” Bill Draper, Sept. 16, 2013
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