State bridge repair needs far outstrip funding

Posted July 31, 2008 5:55 p.m. EDT
Updated July 31, 2008 6:22 p.m. EDT

— A report released Thursday by a University of North Carolina-Charlotte researcher says the condition of bridges statewide are among the worst in the nation.

More than 40 percent of bridges maintained by the state Department of Transportation have been deemed structurally deficient or too old for current traffic demands. That ranks the state 41st nationally, according to the study by David Hartgen, a transportation professor emeritus at UNCC.

The DOT announced a new program Wednesday to provide better oversight and maintenance of the state's bridges. Still, the amount of work needed is daunting: Wake County has 179 bridges that are obsolete or deficient, Durham County has another 79 and Orange County has 68.

Statewide, about 300 to 400 bridges should be replaced each year, DOT spokesman Ernie Seneca said. But the state has enough money to replace only 80 to 90 a year.

"There are major issues," Seneca said, noting half of North Carolina's bridges are more than 40 years old and the expected life span of a bridge is about 50 years.

"In a perfect world, you could fix them all, but that's not realistic right now with the budget constraints we have," he said.

The DOT has $1 billion to spend on bridge replacements over the next six years. Officials said they need more than seven times that amount.

Berry Jenkins, co-chairman of NCGo, a statewide transportation coalition, said he believes the legislature needs to take immediate action to provide funding solutions.

"We are getting in a deep hole quick," Jenkins said. "We're asking for big problems. I hope we never get to where Minnesota was."

A year ago Friday, a section of an Interstate 35 bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed in Minneapolis, killing 13 people. Engineers poring over the rubble found serious structural problems that should have been found before the collapse.

North Carolina spends $65 million a year to maintain and preserve bridges statewide, and Seneca said the DOT is committed to keeping bridges safe.

"We have our work cut out for us, clearly," he said.

One step the DOT has taken to help extend the lifespan of bridges is issuing tougher weight restrictions.

"You certainly want trucks to obey the weight limit laws that are out there on bridges. When this doesn't occur, there is a risk of serious consequences and failures," said Don Idol, a DOT bridge inspection engineer.