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A third of U.S. bridges are in trouble

SHARE A third of U.S. bridges are in trouble

America's half-million bridges are showing their age.

Nearly one in three bridges is obsolete or has structural problems, according to a computer-assisted analysis of Federal Highway Administration data by The Associated Press.Overall, 182,730 of the nation's 581,942 bridges - 31.4 percent - were rated deficient as of June 30, 1996, including one-fourth of the spans along the National Highway System, the most heavily used roads in the country.

Utah is in relatively good shape even before the completion of the I-15 restructuring. Only 697 or or 26 percent of the state's total 2,686 bridges are deficient, according to the study, placing Utah among the top quarter of the 50 states.

Most deficient bridges are not in danger of collapsing. Some simply are too narrow to handle current traffic loads. But others need major repairs - and soon.

"Traveling through virtually any city, you see the bridges crumbling over your head," said Bill Jackman, a spokesman for the AAA motor club.

In Virginia, 13 bridges along I-95 in the Richmond area are to be overhauled, starting with the span over the James River that opened to traffic in 1958. "They are reaching the end of their usable life," said Andy Farmer, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Trans-por-ta-tion.

In Vermont, a construction trade group questions the safety of a bridge frequently used by state lawmakers to reach Montpelier. "If they could see that bridge from underneath, they'd take another route to the capital," said Thom Serrani, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Vermont.

In the nation's capital, where lawmakers are debating how to spend federal gasoline tax revenues for the next six years, one of the Potomac River's busiest spans is a symbol of bridge decay.

Construction crews can frequently be seen replacing asphalt along the Woodrow Wilson Bridge that carries I-95 traffic around Washington - a span that engineers warn has only seven years to last before heavy trucks are banned. Local officials are trying to persuade Congress to pick up most of the $1.6 billion replacement cost.

New York, where the collapse of a state Thruway bridge a decade ago killed 10 people, has the highest percentage of deficient bridges among states: 60.5 percent. Massachusetts and Hawaii also reported that more than half their bridges are deficient, as did the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

In West Virginia, where 45.4 percent of the bridges are substandard, officials are keeping a wary eye on the creaky 66-year-old Shadle Bridge near the Ohio border.

Inspectors say it is still safe, but local residents fear a repeat of the nearby Silver Bridge collapse in 1967 that remains the nation's worst bridge disaster, claiming 46 lives.

That accident spurred a nationwide review of bridges and led to the federal requirement that all bridges be inspected regularly.

There have been more recent wake-up calls as well.

Two years ago, five people died when a bridge on I-5 near Coalinga, Calif., gave way to raging waters. For at least five years before that accident, engineers had been developing flood control plans that might have prevented the collapse.

In New Hampshire, officials and contractors say there have been marked improvements since 1994, when the state highway commissioner declared that motorists should "drive fast and not look back" when crossing bridges.

The number of bridges on the state's "red list" for repairs has shrunk by 140, a fifth of the total, since then.

Lacking money to repair all bridges, highway engineers are taking other precautions. One in every five bridges limits the weight of trucks and other heavy vehicles that can cross.

State and local transportation officials say they are working to reduce the backlog of bridge repairs, but the money at their disposal is limited in an era of balanced budgets and tax cuts.

Making matters worse is that most of the bridges built during the 1960s and 1970s were designed to last 30 years and soon will require major repairs.

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Additional Information

The statistics on each state's bridges

The number of bridges, the number that are deficient and the percentage of deficient bridges in each state as of June 30, 1996. Percentages are rounded:

State Bridges Deficient % deficient

Ala. 15,458 5,008 2

Alaska 1,337 375 28

Ariz. 6,482 699 11

Ark. 12,470 3,581 29

Calif. 23,205 6,257 27

Colo. 7,768 1,655 21

Conn. 4,131 1,206 29

Del. 810 173 21

D.C. 247 151 61

Fla. 10,902 2,890 27

Ga. 14,318 3,834 27

Hawaii 1,055 540 51

Idaho 4,132 830 20

Ill. 25,090 5,909 24

Ind. 17,842 4,770 27

Iowa 25,213 7,599 30

Kan. 25,825 7,657 30

Ky. 13,144 4,197 32

La. 13,350 5,146 39

Maine 2,343 873 37

Md. 4,773 1,486 31

Mass. 5,008 2,827 57

Mich. 10,618 3,611 34

Minn. 12,681 2,317 18

Miss. 16,601 6,412 39

Mo. 23,017 10,028 44

Mont. 4,962 1,270 26

Neb. 15,582 4,954 32

Nev. 1,208 254 21

N.H. 2,333 848 36

N.J. 6,252 2,611 42

N.M. 3,598 679 19

N.Y. 17,361 10,495 61

N.C. 16,286 5,790 36

N.D. 4,587 1,311 29

Ohio 27,768 8,222 30

Okla. 22,704 9,235 41

Ore. 7,279 1,768 24

Pa. 22,242 9,632 43

P.R. 1,886 978 52

R.I. 734 356 49

S.C. 8,984 1,952 22

S.D. 6,081 1,643 27

Tenn. 18,832 5,031 27

Texas 47,196 11,480 24

Utah 2,686 697 26

Vt. 2,694 1,097 41

Va. 12,613 3,864 31

Wash. 7,477 2,007 27

W.Va. 6,578 2,987 45

Wis. 13,220 2,804 21

Wyo. 2,979 734 25

U.S. 581,942 182,730 31

Source:Federal Highway Administration