Don't wait for disaster

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 3, 2007

The Interstate 85 bridge over the Yadkin River was built very differently from the I-35 bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis this week, so highway officials say it is safe. But the bridges still have some worrisome traits in common. Both have served trusting drivers for decades. And both are part of an aging infrastructure that the country has done little to update.
The Minneapolis disaster should make North Carolina transportation officials speed up any bridge replacements they knows are needed.
On July 27, just a few days before the bridge collapse, Federal Highway Administrator J. Richard Capka announced $5.3 million in grants for bridge projects in 25 states, including $350,000 for North Carolina. When it comes to bridge construction, $5.3 million has the heft of a feather. About a quarter of the nation’s 577,000 bridges were rated deficient in 2004, and the I-85 bridge alone has been estimated to cost $350 million. That $5.3 million won’t significantly improve the nation’s bridges.
Bridges are primarily a state responsibility, and North Carolina transportation officials say our bridges are safe. But that’s what Minnesota transportation officials said about the I-35 bridge before it fell into the Mississippi, sending at least five people to their death and injuring dozens of others. To reassure the public, North Carolina’s secretary of transportation, Lyndo Tippett, has ordered a new report on the safety of the state’s substandard bridges. But even that will do little to assuage fears about the I-85 Yadkin bridge and its obsolete design. Traffic in each direction has only two narrow lanes to travel on, and the bridge has no shoulders. Rescue and highway workers risk their lives when they have to perform their duties on the heavily traveled bridge.
At least the Yadkin bridge has a strong structure on its side. The Minneapolis bridge was structurally deficient, with few trusses for its long span.
State inspectors examine each of the more than 13,000 state-owned bridges every two years, as federal law requires, and inspectors issue “prompt action notices” for bridges with serious structural problems or safety hazards.
Still, AAA says North Carolina has the worst rating on bridge safety in the Southeast. Only West Virginia and Louisiana have a higher percentage of substandard bridges in the region.
A bridge collapses in Minnesota. North Carolina compares unfavorably on bridge safety to other Southern states. And the General Assembly has passed a bill requiring the Turnpike Authority to speed up its study of a replacement for the I-85 Yadkin bridge. How many signs does it take to convince transportation and state officials that replacing this bridge should be a top priority?