Every day millions of motorists drive across deficient bridges, at least in the nation's largest cities. That's according to a new national report card on the country's infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers. (ASCE). The report card looked at infrastructure which included bridges, rating bridges nationwide at a C plus. However, individual state ratings varied. Georgia received a lower grade at C minus.
In Chatham County, one of the lowest ratings came for the Back River Bridge, with a sufficiency rating of 14 percent. The narrow lanes and high daily car count (over 14,000 vehicles) are two of the reasons. No shoulder is another. Last year, the issue with those narrow lanes came to light after an accident essentially shut down the bridge. Construction on a new Back River Bridge is expected to get underway this year. But the Georgia Department of Transportation says in the meantime, motorists should have no fear about using the current bridge.
"Every bridge is safe," DOT's Jill Nagel told me. She says bridges are inspected every two years and that the DOT is up to date on its inspections. She says information gathered in inspections is passed on to the Federal Highway Safety Administration.
"We would not let a bridge stay open that was not safe for the traveling public," Nagel says simply.
In the state of Georgian, there are more than 14,500 bridges. While up to half of them are in the jurisdiction of cities and counties, all are inspected by the Georgia DOT. "The DOT does the inspections, however the state is responsible for only those bridges on state right of ways," says Nagel.
She says local governments are responsible for maintaining the structures within their jurisdictions.
Across our region, there are ratings that may certainly seem troubling with terms like "functionally obsolete and structurally deficient."
Here are the breakdowns:
Chatham Co. 20 Functionally Obsolete, 3 Structurally Deficient
Effingham Co. 5 Functionally Obsolete
Bryan Co. 6 Functionally Obsolete, 1 Structurally Deficient
Liberty Co. 9 Functionally Obsolete, 1 Structurally Deficient
Bulloch Co. 8 Functionally Obsolete, 3 Structurally Deficient
Beaufort Co. 8 Functionally Obsolete, 3 Structurally Deficient
Jasper Co. 3 Functionally Obsolete, 1 Structurally Deficient
Yet the DOT says these are engineering terms and don't necessarily mean any bridge in use is unsafe. Nagel says structurally deficient means bridges that can be used but that require maintenance, sometimes significant maintenance. But repairs are possible and are in the process of being made. She said obsolete means if a bridge was built today, it would have to be built to the engineering and technical standards of 2013. Most bridges in Georgia are up to 50 years old, so it's likely in many cases, their designs would not meet this criteria. Still Nagel makes it clear that it doesn't mean any older bridge should not be used by motorists. "Our inspectors take their jobs seriously and work to make sure the motoring public is safe," she said. "And if there is a concern from any inspector, they can ask that the bridge be inspected every year for example or every six months. We can even post load limits on the bridge to expand the life of the bridge and we do post limits when necessary."
The national report card says that the average age of bridges in the U.S. IS 42 years. The average age of Georgia bridges is 50. But Dewayne Mosley who helps to head up bridge maintenance in the DOT's district which covers 24 counties (including local counties) says it's not always about the age as the overall condition. He believes inspectors are on top of potential problems and says no emergency repairs are needed right now in the 24 counties he covers. " We have a deficiency list that we go by," Mosley told me. "And there are A and B and C priorities, A being what the inspector thinks we should do right away, and right now we don't have any A priority repairs in our district."
Still, repairs are a constant issue. And as some bridges get older, increased volume will mean even more maintenance. "With development in places like Savannah you may have a bridge that was designed for a capacity of 2000 cars a day and now there are 20,000," says Nagel.
One who is closely watching the state of bridges along with roads and other infrastructure throughout the state is Atlanta engineer Daniel Agramonte. "We've all driven around in places and we hit construction, the roads aren't sized properly and the bridges wouldn't be sized properly either and it could become an inhibitor to the growth we want to see in our state," he says.
Agramonte believes investing in maintenance for bridges is critical. He says he does feel safe right now as he drives around Georgia. "But I am also aware that rusts never sleeps, that decay continues no matter what, which is why maintenance for bridges and roads as well as other infrastructure is important. "what we are fighting here are the forces of nature. If we don't stay on top of it, things will begin to decay faster than we can repair them," he says.
I asked him if he believes state residents have the willingness to pay for maintenance programs and if leaders have the political will to ask them to pay. "if we approach this the right way, I think we can solve our problems with aging infrastructure for the good of everyone in Georgia," he says. "But if this topic is debated the way some end up being debated and it becomes political, that may become a real concern."
The DOT says it's committed to its maintenance and safety program. It has 42 inspectors for the entire state however. Nagel reiterates if there is a specific concern about a bridge that the inspection schedule can be stopped up. She also says if necessary, a bridge can be closed for safety reasons.
Nagel also says that "we are looking at 500 million dollars in bridge maintenance over the next five years.." I respond that is a lot of money. She agreed. "It is a lot of money but we have a lot of bridges."
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