A truck carrying a backhoe is traveling on a major commuter route, exceeding the legal height limit, when it clips the underside of a bridge and sends chunks of concrete plummeting to the road. When it happened Tuesday on Kenilworth Avenue in the District, authorities said, no one got hurt, and the damage was fairly simple to fix.
But six years ago in Maryland, in an incident involving another trucking company, the result was far worse. A backhoe loaded too high on a truck hit a footbridge over the Baltimore Beltway. A motorist was killed, and three others were injured. And when the Maryland State Highway Administration tallied the costs to remove the damaged bridge and clear the rubble, the bottom line was $126,000, the agency said.
So the state did what it usually does when drivers negligently cause damage along Maryland thoroughfares: It sent a bill to the person responsible.
"If someone knocks over a stop sign, it's not worth going through the [billing] process when you can easily and inexpensively reinstall the sign," said David Buck, a Highway Administration spokesman. "But if someone knocks down a bridge like that, we'll absolutely go after them for the costs."
And the District intends to do the same when police reports on Tuesday's accident are finished, said Bill Rice, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Transportation. He said the backhoe, being hauled south on Kenilworth, extended about 15 feet high -- too tall to fit under the Eastern Avenue bridge, where the clearance is 14 feet 2 inches.
"We will pursue the responsible parties" for the cost of fixing the overpass, Rice said yesterday. He said a crew employed by a private contractor worked for 23 hours to make repairs. Rice said the city and the contractor were negotiating a price for the work yesterday.
The truck is owned by the Asher Construction Co. of Carroll County, Md., whose owner said in an interview that the backhoe didn't fit under the bridge because the driver failed to load it properly. D.C. police issued a traffic citation to the driver.
Seeking restitution from motorists deemed responsible for roadway damage is a routine practice for state and local governments, officials said. Since July 1, 2000, Buck said, Maryland has collected $8.7 million, mostly from drivers' insurance carriers. And the Virginia Department of Transportation said it collected $4.9 million in the last fiscal year, mainly from insurers, for damage to roads, bridges, guardrails, signs and other infrastructure.
"First we'll just send a nice little friendly reminder to you -- that we've been notified you were involved in an accident and that once our damages have been determined, we'll be sending you a statement in the mail," said Alfred Washington, VDOT's accounts receivable manager. "As a rule of thumb, we don't go after less than $200."
Rice said the District has collected "at least $100,000, and maybe more," in the past four years to pay for significant damage along city roads as well as "common, everyday damage to streetlights, signs, curbs and those kinds of things."
Like Virginia and Maryland, the District decides whether to hold drivers responsible for damage based on police accident reports, Rice said. As in other jurisdictions, he said, when motorists are billed for repair costs, officials often wind up negotiating with insurance carriers' attorneys.
For example, Maryland officials said, a year after the June 8, 1999, footbridge accident on the Baltimore Beltway, the state accepted a $100,000 out-of-court settlement against the Canadian company that owned the truck. The main plaintiffs in the lawsuit -- the three injured victims and the family of the dead motorist -- received a total of $2.6 million.
"Our rule of thumb is, anything less than $100, we don't pursue it," Buck said. "But in the overwhelming majority of cases, the damage is above and beyond $500."
Although most charges for roadway repairs are in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, VDOT spokesman Colin Ceperich said, his agency will soon be sending out one or more bills totaling $250,000 for a July 7 crash and chemical spill involving three trucks on Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg. A 200-yard stretch of the highway had to be repaved, Ceperich said, and the state incurred a large expense in hauling away contaminated material.
Local officials said they also mail out bills for roadway damage.
"We always request 100 percent," said Susan Hubbard, a spokeswoman for the Prince George's County Department of Public Works and Transportation. But like her counterpart in Montgomery County, she said that going to court against drivers over small amounts isn't cost-effective, so the county takes what it can get.
In Alexandria, Rich Baier, director of transportation and environmental services, said his agency bills every driver who negligently damages city property.
"We follow it to nth degree," Baier said. Although the city often has to fight for the money in court, he said, "we have a pretty good success rate."
Staff writers Steven Ginsberg and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.