By Peter J. Gunas and Roger C. Smith
WASHINGTON – While an overwhelming majority of Maryland’s bridges are structurally sound, at least 229 require repairs or replacement, state records reveal.
Data supplied by the Maryland State Highway Administration showed that at least 61 of the Old Line State’s 4,826 bridges, or 1.3 percent, require replacement.
At least 168 additional bridges, or 3.5 percent, are in need of repair, Capital News Service’s computer analysis revealed.
Of the 229 Maryland bridges requiring repair or replacement, 16 are state-maintained, showed the data, current through January. The others fall under the jurisdiction of the counties and Baltimore.
About a third of the 229 – 73 Maryland bridges – are scheduled for replacement or repairs by fiscal year 1997, state bridge division records show.
The data shows that Prince George’s, Queen Anne’s and Wicomico counties led the list in bridges needing to be replaced.
In Prince George’s, eight of 459 bridges need replacement; in Queen Anne’s, seven of 88; and in Wicomico, six of 91, county and state records show.
Ali Moghanipour, a Prince George’s County civil engineer, said he didn’t know his county led the list, or what factors were responsible. However, Moghanipour said getting replacement money hasn’t been a problem.
“It’s a long process, but we’ve had no problems getting money,” he said.
Frederick, Baltimore and Harford counties led the list in bridges needing repairs, state records showed.
In Frederick County, 30 of 443 bridges require repairs; in Baltimore County, 18 of 761; and in Harford County, 17 of 237, state records showed.
The three counties with the highest percentages of bridges needing attention – repairs or replacement – were Calvert County, with 13.3 percent, or four of 30; Garrett County, with 11.7 percent, or 14 of 120; and Queen Anne’s, with 9.1 percent, or eight of 88.
Structural ratings are based on bridge inspections that federal law requires at least once every two years.
[Structural ratings were missing for 230 bridges. Valerie Edgar, a SHA spokeswoman, said data for these bridges contained “inconsistencies” that have to be checked.]
State officials point out that even the bridges needing repair or replacement are not in imminent danger of collapse.
And Federal Highway Administration records from 1992, the latest available, showed that Maryland’s bridge system stacked up favorably to those of other states.
Maryland had the second lowest percentage of structurally deficient bridges east of the Mississippi, where most of the nation’s older structures are concentrated. The state ranked 11th nationally.
“Maryland’s bridge program shows a high degree of sophistication,” said Susan Binder, head of the FHA’s Baltimore office. “Their attitude and orientation towards safety is backed up by their dedication of resources.”
However, Maryland officials and transportation experts agree many bridges are being rendered functionally obsolete by increasing congestion, more frequent truck crossings and a trend toward heavier, more compact vehicles.
“The problem in Maryland is not so much any structural deficiency – the safety of its bridges – but the inability of the state to keep the geometrics of its bridges up to the geometrics of its roads,” said David Hartgen, a professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“You’re just as dead if you hit a bridge’s abutment as if you hit the water,” Hartgen said.
Jock Freedman, a deputy chief engineer for the SHA, said an example of a functionally obsolete bridge is the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which spans the Potomac River and connects Maryland and Virginia.
Recent SHA estimates put the bridge’s daily traffic at more than 180,000 vehicles on peak days, Freedman said.
The six-lane span was originally designed to handle less than half that much traffic, said David Keever, spokesman for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Improvement Study.
As a result, the SHA has recommended that the structure be replaced by 2004.
State officials have been lobbying to ease the pressures on Maryland’s bridges.
Freedman said, for instance, the SHA successfully pressed for passage of a state law requiring dump trucks that carry more than 55,000 pounds to have four axles, instead of three. This, he said, will redistribute the truck’s weight over a larger space.
But sometimes problems aren’t anticipated.
In 1979, state inspectors found that three supports on the Severn bridge in Anne Arundel County had sunk into the foundation several inches. They immediately closed the bridge and spent more than $300,000 replacing the supports, Freedman said.
As a result, Freedman said, state inspectors began measuring elevations at several key points in the bridge every two years to guard against continued settling.
Other bridges in obvious need of work are often “posted,” or given a weight restriction. How closely weight restrictions are adhered to is crucial to a bridge’s survival, officials said. -30-