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A bridge to somewhere: We all need them safe

August 19, 2007 12:35 am

AFEW DAYS before I started my first newspaper job, in Denton, Md., the town's old drawbridge fell into the Choptank River. A local schoolteacher who was driving across it one night found herself in a very precarious position.

She and her passenger were not seriously injured, but there was a huge fuss over the state's failure to replace such a decrepit bridge. The early 1900s two-lane span was the primary route across the Eastern Shore to the Delaware beaches and Denton's only connection to the rest of the world. It had been inspected, of course, and found to be deteriorating, but safe--until it fell into the river. Finding another way across the river added 10 to 20 miles to any trip.

I got quite a few stories out of that, from the investigation to the bridge's temporary reconstruction to the eventual construction of its replacement.

Most would agree that infrastructure is boring--until a bridge falls down. Who isn't drawn to pictures showing an interstate bridge that is supposed to go

over

the Mississippi River instead lying

in

the Mississippi River?

It's boring until it doesn't do what it's supposed to do, like the levees that were supposed to keep Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River out of New Orleans.

Around your house and my house, infrastructure is taken for granted until you find a wet spot on the ceiling after a rainstorm, or a different sort of wet spot that's directly beneath an upstairs commode.

It's human nature to take the roof over your head or the bridge you cross every day for granted. But if you don't heed the warnings or anticipate the inevitable, watch out. That wet spot on the ceiling is a heads-up: Do something before the roof--or the toilet--comes

through

the ceiling.

Maybe you do think about the aging infrastructure of your house, just as the government tries to do in your locality, state, and country. When a bridge is inspected, weak spots are patched or repaired, and judgment is made on when serious rehabilitation or replacement must take place. Such decisions are supposed to be made

before

a bridge collapses.

But those decisions, whether around your house or around your state, are also based on financial reality. It is always cheaper to repair than replace, and cheaper still to ignore, especially if it's a matter of convenience or cosmetics rather than safety.

The Minneapolis disaster has raised questions about the condition of our area's bridges. According to Virginia Department of Transportation engineer Gary Shelor, the Falmouth Bridge, for example, scores a 5 on a zero-to-9 scale--9 being excellent condition. If it scored a 4, it would be considered structurally deficient. It is 64 years old, and Shelor said bridges generally have a life span of 50 to 75 years.

Shelor said the U.S. 1 bridge is eligible for replacement with federal funds--a project he estimates will cost $20 million--but there's no reason to pursue the project until a reconfiguration of the U.S. 17/Butler Road intersection is chosen.

In the meantime, the bridge will continue to handle nearly 10,000 more vehicles a day than the 20,000 it was built for, according to VDOT figures. And northbound motorists sitting on the bridge in traffic will feel the bridge quake as southbound cars and trucks pass by. Shelor says that's normal with any "continuous steel girder" bridge--you just don't feel it when you're driving along.

States differ in their scoring systems. Inspections in Minnesota, for example, take into account harsh winter weather conditions that we don't see in Virginia. Nevertheless, Minnesota also rates its bridges on a 0-9 scale. In 2005, the Interstate 35W bridge, which opened in 1967, received a 4 for its superstructure, a 5 for its deck, and a 6--one notch better than the Falmouth bridge rates now--for its substructure. Hmmm.

The reality is that no matter how safe and careful we're trying to be, unexpected events will continue to occur.

That's why I try to avoid sitting under the Charles Street railroad bridge when I wait at the Lafayette Boulevard stoplight. You probably recall stories about chunks of concrete falling from the 80-year-old structures that pass over Charles, Princess Anne, and Caroline streets. Officials insist that chunks of concrete don't mean a locomotive is soon to follow.

A $2.8 million repair project is due to begin this fall. To me, $2.8 million doesn't sound like much given the enormity of those bridges and the daily pounding they have taken and continue to take.

While we can do nothing but trust and accept the safety determinations made by transportation officials, failures like the Minneapolis bridge collapse put inspection practices and fatigue estimates in doubt. Maybe we'll learn the bridge failure was a rare, freak event. Or, perhaps serious flaws will be found in commonly used designs and materials.

In any event, if we truly acknowledge our dependence on safe bridges, tunnels, airports, dams, levees, and water and sewer systems, we'll take action sooner, rather than leave ourselves vulnerable.

Infrastructure may be boring, but we shouldn't let it bore us to death.

Richard Amrhine is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.



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