Transportation Safety Board: Minnesota Bridge Accident an 'Anomaly'

The head of the National Transportation Safety Board said Friday people shouldn't fret about general bridge safety across the country, notwithstanding figures showing more than 70,000 are rated structurally deficient.

"I don't believe that they should be worried at all," NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker said from the scene of the collapse this week of an interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis.

"Rules that have been put into place as a result of a recommendation that we made some 30 years ago have improved the conditions and the standards that in fact these things are being inspected on," he said. ""But with that said, as a result of this catastrophic disaster, we're going to be looking at the rules and finding out in fact if they should be tightened, made more stringent."

Concern about bridge safety has increased in the wake of that bridge span collapse in Minnesota, and figures show that repairing all bridges considered structurally deficient would take at least a generation and cost more than $188 billion. That works out to at least $9.4 billion a year over 20 years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The bridges carry an average of more than 300 million vehicles a day.

"We actually have the collapse itself in total video for us, lasting approximately three seconds. We'll be able to use that as an investigative tool to give us an idea where the structural failure began," Rosenker said.

He said it's too early for officials to know if the accident could have been avoided. "They are built not to fall down. This is an anomaly and we're going to try to find out why this is an anomaly and prevent that anomaly from ever happening again" he said in an appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America" Friday.

It is unclear how many of the spans across America pose actual safety risks. Federal officials alerted the states late Thursday to immediately inspect all bridges similar to the Mississippi River span that collapsed.

In a separate cost estimate, the Federal Highway Administration has said addressing the backlog of needed bridge repairs would take at least $55 billion. That was five years ago, with expectations of more deficiencies to come.

It is money that Congress, the federal government and the states have so far been unable or unwilling to spend.

"We're not doing what the engineers are saying we need to be doing," said Gregory Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, an advocacy group representing a wide range of motorists.

"Unfortunately when you consistently underinvest in roads and bridges ... this is the dangerous consequence," Cohen said of Wednesday's deadly Mississippi River bridge collapse in Minneapolis. He said engineers have estimated $75 billion a year is needed just to keep highways and bridges from further deterioration, but that only around $60 billion a year is being provided.

At least 73,533 of 607,363 bridges in the nation, or about 12 percent, were classified as "structurally deficient," including some built as recently as the early 1990s, according to 2006 statistics from the Federal Highway Administration.

The federal government provides 80 percent of the money for construction, repair and maintenance of the so-called federal-aid highway system including Interstate highways and bridges. But states set priorities and handle construction and maintenance contracts.

A bridge is typically judged structurally deficient if heavy trucks are banned from it or there are other weight restrictions, if it needs immediate work to stay open or if it is closed. In any case, such a bridge is considered in need of considerable maintenance, rehabilitation or even replacement.

Congressional leaders say the number of bridges in need of repair is too high and the funding too low.

There is crumbling infrastructure all over the country, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who heads the Senate panel that controls transportation spending, said the Bush administration has threatened vetoes when Democrats try to increase such spending.

White House deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel, accusing the Democrats of using the bridge collapse for partisan purposes, said Bush had increased funding for federal highways by about 30 percent during his administration. The president had threatened to veto legislation not over highway funding but because of billions of dollars in excess funding in other areas, Stanzel said.

Democrats were not alone in calling for more bridge funding.

"People think they're saving money by not investing in infrastructure, and the result is you have catastrophes like this," said Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., a member of the House transportation committee.

The federal government is now providing about $40 billion a year to improve and expand the nation's highways and bridges.

The main source of revenue for roads and bridges, the federal highway trust fund, is failing to keep up with spending demand. The 18.3 cents a gallon in federal taxes hasn't changed since 1993, and the demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles could affect fuel consumption.

Funding isn't the only issue getting attention after the Minnesota collapse.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said in an interview with The Associated Press that she had asked her department's inspector general to evaluate the agency's overall bridge inspections.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, most bridges in the U.S. Highway Bridge Inventory — 83 percent — are inspected every two years. About 12 percent, those in bad shape, are inspected annually, and 5 percent, those in very good shape, every four years.

The Department of Transportation's inspector general last year criticized the Highway Administration's oversight of interstate bridges. The March 2006 report said investigators found incorrect or outdated maximum weight calculations and weight limit postings in the National Bridge Inventory and in states' bridge databases and said the problems could pose safety hazards. The Highway Administration agreed that improvements in its oversight of state bridge inspections and data were needed.

Incorrect load ratings could endanger bridges by allowing heavier vehicles to cross than should, and could affect whether a bridge is properly identified as structurally deficient in the first place, the inspector general said.

The audit didn't identify any Minnesota bridges or mention the state beyond noting that 3 percent of its bridges were structurally deficient, placing it at the low end among states. It said those bridges were crossed by an average of 30,000 to 40,000 vehicles a day, putting it 13th among the states.

An analysis of 2006 Federal Highway Administration data found that Minnesota bridges were generally in better shape than those in other states. Only about 6 percent of the state's 20,000 bridges were listed as being structurally deficient. In Oklahoma, nearly 27 percent of bridges were cited by the federal government as being structurally deficient, the highest percentage among the states.

Among counties with more than 100 bridges, the problem appears to be most significant in the Midwest. In Nemaha County in southeastern Nebraska, about 58 percent of 194 bridges are structurally deficient. More than 55 percent of neighboring Pawnee County's 188 bridges are in the same shape. Of the 10 worst-off counties with significant numbers of bridges, seven are in Oklahoma or Nebraska.

On the other end of the scale, at least 10 counties with a significant number of bridges have none that are structurally deficient, according to the latest government statistics. A half-dozen of those are in Texas.

Several governors on Wednesday ordered state transportation officials to inspect particular bridges or review their inspection procedures.

Beyond Minnesota, North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven said his state doesn't have any bridges similar to the Minneapolis bridge but he had asked state officials to review inspection procedures. Presidential hopeful and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson ordered an inspection of several steel-truss bridges in the state. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano directed state transportation officials to conduct a statewide review, starting with highly traveled bridges in urban areas.