RALEIGH, N.C. — 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.