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Editorial: N.C. bridges safe, but …

First we learn that many of the connectors that help hold up the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge have dangerous cracks. Now we’re told the underwater equivalent of termites has severely damaged up to a dozen of the pilings supporting the Wrightsville Beach drawbridge.
Stupid question: How safe do you feel crossing North Carolina’s bridges these days?
It’s been no secret that the state has significant room for improvement on bridge maintenance. In 2006, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave North Carolina’s bridges a grade ó seemingly generous, in retrospect ó of C-minus. That same year, an inspection of the Cape Fear bridge apparently failed to find cracks in connectors that fasten together the beams holding up the deck.
Repairs to the lift bridge will require closing the bridge at night and restricting traffic to one lane in each direction during much of the day through late summer. The Wrightsville Beach drawbridge will wait until after tourist season for repairs that will affect traffic. The two bridges over Banks Channel, meanwhile, will need lane closures during peak tourist season to repair damage from saltwater spray.
DOT officials say all the bridges, however badly in need of repair, are safe. But “safe” is a relative term. Officials didn’t think the I-35 West bridge in Minneapolis was unsafe, yet it collapsed under traffic one afternoon last August. A press release from the Minnesota DOT just after the collapse noted, “Nothing in the inspection reports indicated it was necessary to limit access or close the I-35 Bridge.”
According to the DOT’s Web site, the state budgets about $65 million annually for bridge maintenance and replacement. That is a lot of money, but not nearly enough to address a problem that’s likely to get worse as our aging bridges get older.
AAA has said more than 30 percent of our bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete ó fancy ways of saying they need extensive repairs or are carrying more cars and trucks than they were designed to handle. At the time of its 2006 study, ASCE estimated it would cost $8 billion to repair or replace all deficient bridges.
Where will the money come from? A committee has suggested a $1 billion bond issue for the most pressing needs, the possible increased use of toll roads and local funding sources, and phasing out transfers from the Highway Fund. All potentially workable suggestions, if the public and the Honorables will go along.
Gubernatorial candidates have suggested that the DOT itself needs restructuring, and that’s certainly true. The next governor and the General Assembly need to put a much higher priority on maintenance, or “The Good Roads State” will be a laughable nickname.
And if North Carolinians want good roads and well-maintained bridges, they must be willing to pay the price. Their safety may depend on it.
ó Star-News of Wilmington

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