Ohio and the US should widen attention span on bridge safety

Imagine the isolation and incon- venience of America without its 597,961 bridges. Our intricate network of covered, structural and suspension bridges over waterways, highways and railroads provides critical passageways for millions of us to work, schools, health care and recreation daily.

They also act as economic engines, powering about $300 billion annually into the nation’s annual Gross Domestic Product and as priceless contributors to our national security. As such, their structural integrity merits our collective and ongoing attention.

Unfortunately, that integrity continues to crack at the seams.


The dangers of structurally deficient bridges were reinforced last month when a bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state collapsed after a truck bumped against its steel framework. Debbie Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, last week called the collapse a wake-up call for America on bridge safety.

The last time America truly woke up to the dangers of unsafe bridges came six years ago, when a bridge collapse in Minneapolis caused 100 cars to drop into the Mississippi River, killing 13 and injuring 145 people.

Since that disaster, progress has been made. More infrastructure investment in Ohio and the nation has lessened the number of dangerous bridges. The vast majority of our bridges present no cause for alarm. For example, one of the most heavily traveled bridges in the Valley, the Market Street Bridge into downtown Youngstown that carries an average of 49,000 vehicles daily, received a “very good” rating in deck, superstructure and substructure last year from the Federal Highway Administration last year.

But other data indicate we have a long way to go toward comprehensive bridge security. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 26 percent of the nation’s bridges rank as structurally deficient. Closer to home, Ohio fares better. The Buckeye State scored a B- on its 2013 report card on bridge safety from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Only 9 percent of its 44,000 bridges rated structurally deficient.

In the Mahoning Valley, ASCE reports 85 of Trumbull County’s 406 bridges, or 21 percent, are structurally deficient. That’s the fourth highest rate in the state. Mahoning and Columbiana counties fared slightly better, with structural deficiency rates at 13 percent and 11 percent respectively.


But even those relatively low rates are no comfort to those who must travel over insecure spans daily. That’s why the ASCE has set a national goal of decreasing the number of substandard bridges to only 8 percent in the U.S. by 2020.

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called on America to enlist in that valuable campaign. In a plan called “Fix-it-First” the president urged immediate investment of $50 billion into pressing transportation infrastructure projects, including bridge repair and rehabilitation.

Instead of funding that program, Congress reduced transportation infrastructure repair spending by $1.9 billion this year. In Ohio, the mindset on bridge safety has been nearly as myopic. Funding constraints have forced the state Department of Transportation to severely delay completion of dozens of critical road and bridge projects.

One can only hope that it doesn’t take a disaster as severe or worse than the Minneapolis tragedy of 2007 to widen the nation’s attention span on the compelling need for ongoing protection of the many assets America’s bridges build.

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