Two bridge collapses that killed nine people in two weeks have put a spotlight on highway inspections, and a U.S. senator says the entire country faces the "mammoth task" of repairing bridges.
A bridge collapse on April 1 dumped two lanes of U.S. Highway 51 into the Hatchie River about 45 miles north of Memphis, Tenn., killing eight people. Two weeks after that, an East Tennessee teenager died when a small, wooden span collapsed in the state."We need to understand that bridges do get old and wear out and there has to be enough money, federal and state, to rebuild them when rebuilding is needed," said Les Lamm of the Washington, D.C.-based Highway Users' Federation.
Sen. Jim Sasser, D-Tenn., who toured the Tennessee bridge site last month with U.S. Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner, said some 240,000 bridges across the country need repairs, and fixing them could cost more than $50 billion.
But money is not the only problem, Sasser said.
"Our bridge inspection program is chaotic and our bridge repair program is haphazardly administered," he said. "Sometimes we're repairing reasonably sound bridges and at the same time neglecting bridges that are a genuine hazard."
Although the federal government pays most of the money for bridge repairs on major roadways, states conduct the inspections.
As records of the Tennessee Transportation Department show, deficiencies pointed out by those inspections are often left unfixed.
Inspections of the Hatchie Bridge found evidence of soil erosion around bridge supports in 1985 and 1987 but nothing was done. The bridge was checked again in February because of heavy flooding, but no underwater inspection was made.
Authorities said the Hatchie Bridge apparently fell because of erosion, or scouring, around a bridge support. The collapse dumped four cars and an tractor-trailer into the river and everyone in those vehicles died.
Since the collapse, Tennessee officials have stepped up inspections and have closed four bridges on state-maintained highways.
Discussions on bridge safety following the Hatchie collapse have centered on the lack of nationwide standards for inspection and repair and on the need for more money.
"We've simply got to get the Federal Highway Adminstration better organized to deal with the mammoth task of renovating this nation's bridge system," Sasser said.