Key Bridge, 14th St. Bridge among 215 D.C. area bridges rated structurally deficient

Two hundred fifteen bridges in the Washington region are structurally deficient, including three of the five major bridges that cross the Potomac River into Washington, according to a report released Wednesday.

The group Transportation for America said the Key Bridge, the Memorial Bridge and the 14th Street bridge all need immediate repair. More than 215,000 vehicles cross them on an average day. The 14th Street bridge is scheduled to undergo a complete overhaul in the next four years.

The local bridges were among 70,000 nationwide that were rated structurally deficient by federal, state and local agencies. That means they need substantial repairs or replacement.

“If a bridge is unsafe, it is closed,” said Cathy St. Denis of the Federal Highway Administration. “There’s a common misconception that a structurally deficient bridge is about to fall down. It’s not.”

Transportation for America, a coalition of groups focused on national transportation policy, compiled its report from 2009 FHWA data, the most recent available.

The FHWA says that bridges are considered structurally deficient if significant load-carrying elements need repair. Rating a bridge deficient does not imply that it is likely to collapse or that it is unsafe, but that it might need closer monitoring or more frequent inspections.

The report says the average age of a bridge in Virginia was 41 years and that 1,267 of them, or 9.4 percent, were structurally deficient. Charlottesville, Fredericksburg and Rappahannock County had the most deficiencies.

In Maryland, the average bridge was 43 years old and 359 were deficient, or 6.9 percent. The worst bridges were in Caroline, Garrett and Cecil counties; Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties had the best bridges in the state.

The District had the region’s oldest bridges, with an average age of 57 years, and 30 of them were in structural trouble, 12.3 percent of the total.

John Lisle, a spokesman for the D.C. Transportation Department, said that four bridges listed as deficient in the study have been rebuilt or repaired or are undergoing improvements. They included the Kenilworth Avenue bridge over Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue; the Eastern Avenue bridge over Kenilworth Avenue; the Ninth Street bridge over Interstate 395; and the 11th Street bridge over the Southeast Freeway. He said pier strengthening of the 14th Street bridge, an initial step in more extensive planned work, was nearly complete.

The report comes at a time of uncertainty in Washington over how to resurrect a decaying national infrastructure with the country deeply in debt. The FHWA has estimated the price tag for tackling potentially dangerous bridges at $70.9 billion, but Congress seems on course to settle on $45 billion to $54 billion a year in overall funding for surface transportation. If those current spending levels are approved, that would provide a little more than $5 billion a year for bridges.

Pittsburgh, which sits at the confluence of three rivers, had more deficient bridges than any other metropolitan area with 2 million or more people. Thirty percent of its bridges were bad. Oklahoma City topped the list of areas with less than 2 million people, with almost 20 percent of its bridges rated deficient, and Tulsa ranked first in the less-than-1 million population category, with close to 28 percent of its bridges in need of immediate repair.

The group included an attention-grabbing metric in its report.

“There are more deficient bridges in our metropolitan areas than there are McDonald’s restaurants in the entire country,” said James Corless, director of Transportation for America — 18,239 bad bridges versus roughly 14,000 McDonald’s.

“These metropolitan area bridges are most costly and difficult to fix, but they also are the most urgent, because they carry such a large share of the nation’s people and goods.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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