Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The State of Pennsylvania Bridges

Since the deadly Minnesota bridge collapse of I-35W back on August 1, 2007, which I wrote about here on my blog, I have been on a mission to find more information on the condition of the 25,000 state-owned bridges in Pennsylvania. What I have found out is disturbing and scary to say the least.

According to a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) report on PA Bridges, Pennsylvania has the largest number of structurally deficient bridges in the nation – nearly 6,000 statewide. A structurally deficient bridge is defined as being safe, but in need of costly repairs or replacement to bring it up to current standards.

PennDOT does have in place what is calls an “aggressive” bridge inspection program that calls for regular inspections of all Pennsylvania bridges at least once every two years, with structurally deficient bridges being inspected more frequently if their condition warrants.

Does this inspection program make you feel safe while driving over a local bridge? I know that I personally say a prayer every time I cross a bridge in Pennsylvania now. Maybe it is because of the horrifying images I saw from the Minnesota bridge collapse that is causing my fear. However, when you look at the numbers, my fear may be justified.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Bridge inspectors give each bridge a “sufficiency rating” rating on a 0-to-100 scale, using a formula that evaluates safety, serviceability, and how essential the bridge is. And they assign a condition rating for each of its three primary components (deck, superstructure and substructure) on a 0-to-9 scale (0 = failed [out of service and beyond corrective action], 1 = closed, 2 = critical, 3 = serious, 4 = poor, 5 = fair, 6 = satisfactory, and 7, 8, or 9 = good). A structurally deficient bridge is one for which the deck, superstructure or the substructures are rated in condition of 4 or less.

Minnesota’s I-35W bridge had a sufficiency rating of 50, a deck score of 5 (‘fair”), a superstructure score of 4 (“poor”), and a substructure score of 6 (“satisfactory”), as of the last Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) Bridge Inspection Report dated 06-15-2006. To date, the cause of this bridge collapse is still unknown.

According to the research conducted by Paul Nussbaum, Transportation Reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the eight-county Philadelphia region has 57 bridges that carry at least 25,000 vehicles daily and have ratings at least as low as the Minnesota I-35W bridge. Additional disturbing, yet eye-opening findings from Paul’s research include:

  • The worst local bridge, according to sufficiency and condition ratings, is the DeKalb Pike Bridge located in Bridgeport, PA. This bridge scores a sufficiency rating of 3 out of 100, a substructure rating of 2 (critical), and a superstructure and deck rating of 4 (poor) respectively. This bridge carries U.S. 202 over the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks and remains open without weight limitations.

  • I-95 has more deficient bridges than any other highway in the region at 15. The Pennsylvania Turnpike has 7 bridges rated deficient and the Schuylkill Expressway has one bridge rated deficient.

  • Of the major Delaware River bridges in the region, only the Burlington-Bristol Bridge is rated structurally deficient.

For an interactive map of the bridges in the worst condition in the Philadelphia region, check out this tool provided by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Despite the engineering reports and the independent research that highlights the dire condition of Pennsylvania bridges, state officials continue to assert that the bridges remain safe. But Minnesota officials thought the same thing about the I-35W Bridge before it collapsed into the murky Mississippi River. And that bridge was rated significantly higher across the board that most of Pennsylvania’s bridges.

Pennsylvania has at least acknowledged the troubled state of its transportation infrastructure. According to PennDOT, Pennsylvania has made significant investments to improve bridge and highway infrastructure in the state. Last year alone, PennDOT invested $558 million in 894 bridge projects statewide, with $425 million of this budget being devoted to the rehabilitation and replacement of structurally deficient bridges.

Clearly, Pennsylvania has taken a step in the right direction, to ensure the safety of our bridges. But because the state currently has such a large amount of structurally deficient bridges, it will take decades to complete them all. This means that, in the interim, we must take our chances driving over the nation’s worst bridges daily. Comforting isn’t it?

Let me know what you think of the state of Pennsylvania’s bridges by leaving me a comment.

No comments: