Number of deficient CT bridges on the rise

Devon Bridge across the Housatonic could cost $750 million to replace.

NEC Commission

Devon Bridge across the Housatonic could cost $750 million to replace.

Washington – The Walk Bridge in Norwalk is not the only bridge in Connecticut that has problems by far. The percentage of all bridges in poor condition has been climbing since 2006.

According to the Federal Highway Administration’s national bridge inventory, nearly one in every 10 bridges in the state has been deemed structurally deficient, meaning 413 of the state’s 4,218 bridges in the inventory were deficient in 2013.

In addition, nearly one in four Connecticut bridges was deemed “functionally obsolete.” That means they are outdated and do not meet current standards required of new bridges.

A structurally deficient bridge isn’t unsafe, but at least one or more of it’s major components are deemed to be in poor condition.

The percentage of Connecticut bridges in poor condition is lower than the national average of 11 percent. But the state’s number of structurally deficient bridges has been climbing since 2006, when it was 8.5 percent.

The state is working on about 20 problem bridges, including a massive project to replace the I-95 bridges over the Quinnipiac and Housatonic rivers in New Haven.

But roads and bridges in the Northeast are deteriorating at a faster rate than the federal  or state governments can find the money to fix them.

The Federal Highway Administration estimated that to eliminate the nation’s bridge deficient backlog by 2028, the nation would have to invest $20.5 billion annually on bridges. But only about $12.8 billion is being spent today.

The state of the nation’s roads and bridges may soon face another crisis. The Highway Trust Fund, the account the federal government uses to funnel billions of dollars to states every year for priority road and bridge projects, is projected to go broke at the end of August.

The trust fund is financed largely through gasoline taxes and it’s dwindling balance is largely a consequence of the more fuel-efficient cars on the nation’s roads today.

Congress cannot agree on a way to replenish the fund, although several proposals are on the table, including one that would raise the gasoline tax by 12 cents a gallon. It was proposed by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

The Walk Bridge in Norwalk, a 118-year-old railroad swing bridge over the Norwalk River that recently has stopped commuter trains by getting stuck open, is not included in the Federal Highway Administration’s bridge inventory. The FHWA does not have jurisdiction over the state’s 306 railroad bridges That’s  the Federal Railroad Administration’s responsibility.

The FRA has sent a team to Connecticut this week to inspect the Walk Bridge and Metro-North’s four other “movable” bridges in the state.

FRA spokesman Michael England said the agency is inspecting the Walk Bridge because of complaints about its operations and “taking a look at the other four bridges as well because we’ll be in the area.”

England said the FRA conducts random inspections of the nation’s railroad bridges. The FRA also requires railroad track owners – in this case the state of Connecticut – to inspect railroad bridges at least once a year.

The latest state inspections, conducted last fall, did not raise any warning flags.

The state rates all bridges on a 0-9 scale. The Walk Bridge’s superstructure was rated a 4 and its substructure rated 5. Four is a “poor,” or structurally deficient, rating and 5 is a “fair” rating.

“Given the age of the structure, these are actually pretty remarkable numbers,” said Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick. “The numbers reflect the condition of an aging bridge, but in no way reflect on how safe the bridge is. That is indeed verifiable – the bridge is absolutely safe – and if not for the mechanical ailments, the bridge would probably be serviceable for another 25 years.”

Gov. Dannel Malloy, however, asked the federal government in March for $349 million to pay for the lion’s share of replacing the bridge from a $3 billion FRA fund created by Congress in the 2012 Hurricane Sandy relief bill. But competition for the money — mainly from New York and New Jersey – is stiff.

Despite the inspection reports that raised no alarms, in the application for the FRA money the Malloy administration wrote the Walk Bridge “has far exceeded its fatigue life, even minor damage sustained as a result of a climate hazard could result in a total loss of the structure.”

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard has called the Walk Bridge “inoperable,” and said it would not open the bridge to marine traffic so short-term repairs could be completed.

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