ANNAPOLIS – Maryland motorists may not notice as they speed down the highway, but almost 150 bridges in the state, ranging from small one-lane structures to overpasses carrying major highways, have been deemed in need of repair or replacement, a Capital News Service analysis of state data found.
Inspection data provided by the Maryland State Highway Administration showed that 146 of the state’s nearly 5,000 operating bridges require repairs or other “corrective action.” Of those, 58 need to be replaced entirely, the data show.
The database of inspection information is used to provide the Federal Highway Administration with a measuring stick by which to allot federal funding to the state for bridge maintenance.
Though from a distance, the bridges listed as needing repairs look like most others, a random visit to half a dozen showed that all had cracks, rust and other signs of wear.
But state officials say confidently that none of the bridges on the list of those considered in need of repair or replacement is unsafe or in danger of collapse.
Joseph Miller, the inspection division chairman in the highway administration’s office of bridge development, said the numbers do not tell the whole story.
“Our system is in better shape than it’s ever been,” he said.
Miller said that the evaluations in the data could mean that a bridge has structural deficiencies or that it is simply “functionally obsolete,” which could mean that the bridge was only designed to carry a certain amount of weight or that its number of lanes does not match up with the approaching roadway.
“It could be in 100 percent condition,” he said, “but it might have been designed for a 30,000-pound vehicle instead of today’s 80,000-pound vehicle,” he said.
The vast majority of bridges that are marked as needing repairs fall into the latter category, Miller said. According to the data, 35 of the bridges are open with no restrictions with regard to weight or the number of vehicles the bridge can carry.
A 2003 study in the Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities ranked Maryland as having the sixth most bridge failures in the country between 1989 and 2000. The state had the highest ratio of bridge failures to number of bridges, at .49 percent.
A bridge failure is defined as either a collapse or a “distress.” A distress is considered to be “the unserviceability of a structure or its component(s) that may or may not result in a collapse” but may cause some deformity in the bridge.
Chung C. Fu, director of the University of Maryland’s Bridge Engineering Software and Technology Center, said that bridge collapses “rarely happen” and that Maryland is no worse than any other state when it comes to safety.
“I think Maryland is ranked pretty high in doing prevention work,” he said.
Maryland is not in an area at risk for weatherizing damage – like earthquakes and frequent hurricanes – that can lead to the immense damage that causes collapses, Fu said. As for repairing the damage that does occur, Fu said that budgetary limitations and considerations like location, traffic and other factors contribute to the process of determining the work bridges need in the state.
“Based on the budget, they prioritize the bridges,” he said. “If you look at those bridges, mainly in the countryside, many probably lack maintenance.”
But not all the bridges that need work are in the countryside, the database showed.
Fourteen of the bridges that need repairs carry fairly heavy traffic – an average of over 10,000 vehicles a day. Some, mostly over small creeks or river branches, are estimated to carry less than 100 vehicles a day. Still others are nestled in little-traveled parts of urban areas, like a small bridge that carries San Martin Drive alongside the campus of Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University.
Frederick County has the most bridges on the list with 23. Baltimore County has 22, Cecil County has 13, and Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County each have 11.
Several of the bridges that are pegged for repairs hold up major thoroughfares, including the crossing of Interstate 270 over Little Seneca Creek in Montgomery County, the crossing of Interstate 895 over Potee Street in Baltimore, and the crossing of state Route 450 over the CSX Railroad tracks just west of Route 197 in Prince George’s County.
Still, Fu said, the bridges on major highways are in generally “good condition.”
Though inspection information provides a framework, Miller said that his division uses other methods to determine which bridges in the state need immediate repairs.
Each year, Miller said, SHA engineers visit about 200 bridges and identify the 75 which need the most immediate repair work and approximately 10 that need replacing. Miller said his division then presents a “state of the state of bridges” report to the department’s financial division to ask for appropriate funding.
For the over 1,600 Maryland bridges for which there are estimates, it would cost the state a total of nearly $1.2 billion to repair them all, the data show. For fiscal 2007, about $130 million in state money and $25 million in federal funds are earmarked for bridge repair and replacement.
Miller said that the estimates in the database could very likely be inflated or may include estimates for bridges that do not need immediate work.
“It’s tough to say that’s what your need is when a bridge doesn’t need to be replaced,” he said.
Miller said that the federal funding cut in next year’s budget -down from around $58 million in fiscal 2006 – is not representative of federal cutbacks, but is actually indicative of an advance of fiscal 2007’s funding into the current year. “It’s representative of us doing more work in one fiscal year,” he said.