State News

DOT Ordered to Report on Substandard Bridges

Posted August 2, 2007

— The state Transportation Department began a review of substandard bridges across North Carolina on Thursday, following the deadly collapse of a highway bridge in Minnesota.

Although no new inspections were immediately planned, Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett asked that work begin on a report that will detail the safety of such bridges, said department spokesman Ernie Seneca.

Tippett wants the report completed before the September meeting of the state Board of Transportation.

"We have a rigorous and aggressive bridge inspection and oversight program," Seneca said, adding that every bridge in the state is inspected at least every two years.

If inspectors uncover an immediate safety problem, Seneca said, the bridge is closed for repairs.

As many as 30 people were reported missing following Wednesday night's collapse of the eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge just outside of downtown Minneapolis. Dozens were injured. The official death count stood at four, but police said more bodies were in the water. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has ordered an immediate inspection of all bridges in that state with similar designs.

The I-35W bridge was among the thousands nationwide that the Federal Highway Administration rated as "structurally deficient." Last year, there were 2,256 bridges rated structurally deficient and 2,816 classified as "functionally obsolete" in North Carolina, 28 percent of the state's more than 17,000 bridges. Nationwide, about 25 percent of bridges held such a rating.

Thirty-two bridges in the state are closed because they are deemed too dangerous.

A bridge is considered substandard if it falls into either category. That doesn't mean it is unsafe, however, said Emmett Sumner, a structural engineering professor at North Carolina State University.

"They say they are deteriorating and will need repair over a period of time," Sumner said of the ratings.

Don Idol, an assistant state bridge inspection engineer, said bridges that fall into either category fail to meet modern standards. For example, an interstate highway bridge with a deck narrower than 28 feet is considered obsolete. But such bridges can be used within limits, such as vehicle weight or size restrictions. He said that as long as those limits are obeyed, the bridges are "safe for the public to use."

None of the state's bridges show any danger of collapse, said Tom Crosby, spokesman for Charlotte-based motor club AAA of the Carolinas. In February, a AAA report said North Carolina – which has twice as many bridges as Tennessee, Georgia or South Carolina – ranked 11th in the nation for the number of substandard bridges and was the worst in the South.

"It's absolutely a funding issue. The problem is the Legislature continues to ignore the necessary maintenance and repair," Crosby said. "It's a shame it takes a tragedy to wake people up."

According to AAA Carolinas, the worst bridge in North Carolina is the Interstate 40 Business span over State Route 4315 in Winston-Salem. The 52-year-old bridge, which has held the worst AAA ranking for six years, is scheduled for replacement in 2013.

The second worst, according to the report, is the Interstate 440 bridge over Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. The DOT said that isn't a structural issue, but a capacity issue.

"It carries a larger volume of traffic now than when it was designed," Idol said. "The number of lanes it has was designed for much less traffic."

Perhaps the most well-know bridge in North Carolina is the 42-year-old Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, which spans Oregon Inlet to connect Hatteras Island with the northern Outer Banks. Portions of the 2.4-mile-long bridge, situated in a harsh marine environment, have chipped concrete and rusted steel.

Tippett said in January it will cost $40 million to repair the Bonner Bridge so it can be used without weight restrictions for another decade. Studies are under way to determine the best route for an eventual replacement, Seneca said.

"When repairs are needed, they are made out there," Seneca said. "We have folks out there looking at it, and the bridge is fine."

Both AAA Carolinas and the DOT have said none of the bridges in North Carolina are in danger of collapsing.

"We do need to focus on the bridges. They do need to be repaired," said Charlene Edwards with AAA Carolinas. "But I don't think anybody needs to panic over any bridges, right now."

North Carolina spends about $303 million a year to replace deteriorating bridges and about $65 million a year to maintain the others.


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  • BeHappy Aug 3, 2007

    Bridges are being replaced by DOT. In two counties we are now replacing 6 bridges with 3 more to be replaced in the next 6 months. We can only fix what we are given the money to fix. Just think of the work we could complete if we could keep the $16 million dollars it costs DOT to pick up the trash the citizens of this state happily deposit on our roads each year. As taxpayers, we could all do better. As voters, we should demand better. DOT employees travel the same roads each day that all NC citizens do. Matter if fact, we travel them much more than the average person each day because that's our job. I can't speak for all state workers, but I work with some fine folks at DOT that do care about the citizens of this state. We want safe roads. We want the citizens of this state to be safe and happy. We have to. Many of them are family members.

  • missdawg Aug 3, 2007

    "Both AAA Carolinas and the DOT have said none of the bridges in North Carolina are in danger of collapsing."

    Nobody thought the I-35W bridge was in danger of collapsing either. Maybe we do need some new inspections.

  • lilwil Aug 3, 2007

    It's sad that it had to take a tragedy like in Minnesota for DOT to take a look at NC bridges. They should have been doing that anyway. Why are they getting paid? To just sit around or better yet, to botch up road jobs?

    I think our legislators should have to answer questions about where all the "tax" money is going, certainly the workers are not getting the raises.

  • diana123 Aug 3, 2007

    yeah and he steals from the nc state employee retirement pension fund. pays a little back each year and then steals it again!

  • Brick Tamland Aug 3, 2007

    If the DOT subcontracts the bridge work like they do the highways, we're in big trouble.

  • diana123 Aug 3, 2007

    easley has that list already. just another lie from him and others. these bridges in north carolina won't get repaired because the budget has already been approved. unless of course the politicians want to raid or steal from accounts they have no business in.

  • whatelseisnew Aug 3, 2007

    Hey don't worry. They will take the report print a few million copies and use the paper to hold up some of the bridges. Hey Gov is'nt time to steal a few million more from the trust fund. We don't need no stinking bridges. Hey Gov put tolls on every bridge.

  • Made In USA Aug 3, 2007

    Too bad former Gov. Jim Hunt has retired. I can remember him making our highways a priority in his budget. Easley has done just the opposite. The biggest thing Easley's done is apply a rebate on our state's poor citizen's government-help checks through the crooked state lottery. And that's exactly what it amounts to...the state receiving a rebate on what they give to the poor. If that wasn't enough, he had to put his hand into the DOT's bank account and steal from our road budget. What a bunch of crooks we have elected! Way to go Easley! Now update our bridges and roads BEFORE we fall down like the I-35 West span did.

  • Z Man Aug 3, 2007

    Remember these are all DOT public relations people. Their only job is to interface with the public. Not one of them has ever gotten out there and examined the underside of a bridge with an inspector. They take reports from the inspector, twist the facts and spew glittering generalities not to inform the public but in hopes of fending off public ire so they can keep their cushy jobs.

    How many times have we been put at ease by some PR person only to have them proven dead wrong at which time they attempt to weasel out of their previous statements?

    By the way, what ever happened to the report that was generated after the New York State thruway bridge collapse and was it ever acted upon?

  • Bob Sidel Aug 3, 2007

    the states not gonna do anything different than what theyve been doing, they just say that cause if they dont, you idiots will be crying about how NC is not doing anything proactive after hearing about this collapse.