Area Bridges Need Pricey Repair Work

The Frederick Douglass Bridge is currently closed for repairs. It is being overhauled to extend its life until a new span is built.
The Frederick Douglass Bridge is currently closed for repairs. It is being overhauled to extend its life until a new span is built. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Laris and Virgil Dickson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 3, 2007

More than a dozen bridges in the District, hundreds more in Maryland, and nearly 1,200 in Virginia have deteriorated sharply since they were built and need increasingly expensive fixes to remain safe, according to federal and local statistics and interviews.

Like the span that collapsed in Minneapolis, those bridges are listed as "structurally deficient" by federal standards, a transportation term of art that indicates "major deterioration, cracks, or other deficiencies in their decks, structure, or foundations," according to a 2006 U.S. Department of Transportation report.

Local transportation engineers emphasized yesterday that despite being tagged as "deficient," the bridges are safe to travel on. "If we feel a bridge is not safe, we would close it without delay," said Ardeshir Nafici, acting chief engineer for the District's Department of Transportation.

But the District, which maintains many of the Washington region's vital Potomac River bridges, will not have the resources to keep its structures safe during the next decade or two without a major infusion of funds, according to Kathleen Penney, deputy chief engineer for the city's Transportation Department.

"A lot of bridges were built in the late '50s and '60s. We're dealing with a time issue," Penney said. "Nationally, there are a massive number of bridges that are coming to the end of their useful lives. . . . We have some major bridges that are going to need work over the next 10 or 20 years. The District is a very small government, and our normal apportionment [of federal funds] is not enough to address the deficiencies we know we are going to have to deal with."

Penney cited the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge as one example of an aging structure that will need an overhaul in coming years.

Several other Washington area bridges are being rebuilt or rehabilitated. The first span of a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge opened last year, and the second is slated to open next year; maintenance work is being done on the underside of the American Legion Bridge; the Frederick Douglass Bridge is being overhauled this month; and repairs are ongoing on the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial (Chesapeake Bay) Bridge.

Federal rules require bridge inspections every two years or less, local officials said.

D.C. officials said 15 of its bridges, or just over 6 percent, were listed as "structurally deficient," according to the latest statistics from the city.

District officials said two bridges have not been inspected within the past two years. They are both over Amtrak lines and were last inspected in 2004 because the Transportation Department had trouble gaining access to the sites, the officials said.

Some on the District's deficient list are set for expensive fixes. For instance, there are plans for a major overhaul and redesign of the 11th Street Bridge beginning in 2009, according to spokesman Erik Linden.

Officials in Virginia, where 1,197 bridges -- 9 percent -- were federally classified as "structurally deficient," and Maryland, where 410 -- 8 percent -- received the designation, repeatedly noted that their bridges are safe for travel.

"This is an opportunity to realize that these bridges were not built by themselves and require all of us to invest in our infrastructure . . . to make sure tragedies like this don't happen," Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said at a news conference yesterday. State Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari added that no Marylander "should be concerned about the safety of our bridges."

Porcari said that in April, the Federal Highway Administration gave the state an "excellent rating" for inspections. He said Maryland is responsible for the maintenance of more than half of the state's 5,000-plus bridges. Local governments are responsible for the rest.

Virginia has an "aggressive bridge inspection and safety program which goes beyond federal requirements," said Joan Morris, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Transportation.

"We conduct about 12,000 bridge inspections each year. We have no reason to believe that any bridge in Virginia is in danger of collapse. If we find a safety or structural concern, we immediately post a weight limit, detour traffic and repair the bridge," Morris said.

VDOT staff members yesterday began a review of records of the state's 20,000 bridges and large culverts -- boxlike structures through which traffic passes. Officials said the analysis will identify Virginia bridges consisting of a "long, open span" similar to the Minneapolis bridge as well as bridges of similar age. Officials did not know how long the review would take.

In Arlington County, designs are being drawn up to replace a bridge at Route 27 and Columbia Pike, Virginia officials said.

Advocacy groups said the collapse in Minneapolis, coupled with federal statistics showing substantial numbers of bridges in the District, Maryland and Virginia needing repair, is a wake-up call for local officials.

"It doesn't mean that the bridge is likely to collapse or fall down tomorrow. It doesn't mean they are unsafe," said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. Still, he said, "It's a red flag; it's an early warning."

Local officials would not speculate on the cause of the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. "However, we will be relentless in our efforts to improve our practices where we can and learn whatever lessons the tragedy in Minneapolis may offer," Porcari said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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