WASHINGTON — Federal transportation officials announced plans over the weekend to investigate the agency responsible for inspecting highway bridges, an inquiry triggered by the collapse of an interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis.
The inspector general for the Transportation Department said the inquiry would focus on the Federal Highway Administration’s inspection program and ways to improve the agency’s oversight of more than 70,000 bridges that have been found structurally deficient.
“The Interstate 35W bridge collapse raises questions” about the highway administration oversight of bridge inspections, said Calvin L. Scovel III, the transportation department’s inspector general.
Scovel said his inquiry will examine whether highway administration officials followed recommendations in 2006 to improve oversight of structurally deficient bridges and to work more closely with state transportation officials “address the most serious deficiencies found during bridge inspections.”
Also under review, Scovel said, is the federal funding provided to states and whether they are making efficient repairs to deficient bridges.
The Minneapolis bridge was found structurally deficient in 1990.
Transportation Secretary Mary Peters requested the review. Asked Friday whether she could be sure none of the other structurally deficient bridges are unsound, said there are no indications, but substantive changes in bridge inspections are needed.
Peters said changes could come, however, depending on the results of inspections ordered Thursday of 756 steel-deck truss bridges similar to the Minneapolis bridge and on findings from the investigation into the collapse.
“Obviously something happened here that none of us expected,” said Peters.
Those bridges carry an average of more than 300 million vehicles a day.
At least 73,533 of roughly 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.
A bridge is typically judged structurally deficient if heavy trucks are banned 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 substantial maintenance, rehabilitation or even replacement.
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.
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.
The federal government is now providing about $40 billion a year to improve and expand the nation’s highways and bridges.
Check your bridges
Want to do some research on bridges? Here are some Web sites that are useful:
Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration
The number of “structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete” bridges by state in 2006. The information is under SD and FO columns.
Bridge Technology: Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration
National Bridge Inventory: Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration
State Transportation Web Sites: Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration
American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) _ Infrastructure issues by state, 2007: American Society of Civil Engineers