N.C. should learn from bridge fall

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 3, 2007

By Ray Cox, Pam Townsend and Betsy Bailey
For the Salisbury Post
The tragic bridge collapse disaster in Minnesota should be a wake-up call to everyone who cares about North Carolina and its citizens, including all legislators and the executive branch of our state government.
There is an urgent need to immediately address critical transportation infrastructure in our state. The recently adopted state budget fails to provide a much-needed increase in funding for a transportation system facing major shortfalls. And, with the legislature adjourning, there will be no legislation to help fund other transportation needs such as the Turnpike Authority projects ó even though the authority was established by legislation in 2002 with the purpose of providing an alternative financing mechanism to pay for much-needed roads during a time of rapid growth.
Ironically, at a time when the state general fund is enjoying a surplus, there is a major deficit in projected transportation funding (exceeding $65 billion over the next 25 years) ó yet there continues to be a diversion of $170 million from the Highway Trust Fund to the General Fund for non-transportation uses. With thousands of people moving to our state each week, placing additional stress on an already strained system, we cannot afford to continue this diversion.
Many of our citizens don’t know that they may be driving over bridges each day that are considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete ó 32 percent of North Carolina’s 17,000 bridges fall in this category. The cost to replace these deficient structures is estimated at approximately $8 billion (ASCE, North Carolina Infrastructure Report Card, 2006).
The I-85 Yadkin River Bridges (north and south spans) are a prime example of projects that qualify for immediate replacement. The existing bridges were built in 1955, over 50 years ago (the Minneapolis bridge was 40 years old). I-85 is a major corridor, with more than 50,000 vehicles traveling over these bridges each day ó including heavy freight trucks. Both bridges have recently been rated as “functionally obsolete” and deficient and recommended for replacement. Legislation passed in this session requires the N.C. Turnpike Authority to study this project as a toll facility. Surely this bridge replacement is a top priority in the state. Funding needs to be secured immediately, not just studied. Present and past officials in Minnesota are being roundly criticized for failing to address a similar situation that resulted in catastrophe.
It should not take a disaster such as what just occurred in Minnesota for our leaders to focus on the critical transportation needs in this state. We ask that the General Assembly come back immediately for a special session to deal specifically with transportation issues.
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Ray Cox is president of the Professional Engineers of North Carolina; Pam Townsend is director at large; and Betsy Bailey is executive director. For more information about the association, which is based in Raleigh, visit its Web site, www. penc.org.