Maine reduced its number of structurally deficient bridges by 8.5 percent from 2011 to 2012, but the state still ranks among the top 10 in the nation for the highest percentage of deficient bridges, according to a recent study.
The national safety advocacy group Transportation for America ranked Maine ninth among the 50 states with slightly more than one of every seven bridges classified as deficient by Federal Highway Administration standards.
That designation doesn’t mean the span is unsafe, only that it needs significant repair or maintenance to remain in use.
Even though the state reduced the number of deficient bridges from the previous year, state transportation officials say the study just highlights the fact that funding is still lacking to get to all the bridges that need work.
“We’re constantly inspecting and evaluating bridges so we can prioritize,” said Maine Department of Transportation Spokesman Ted Talbot. “Each state has an aging infrastructure and our needs always exceed available funds.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, used the study this week to push for increased funding. Michaud and other legislators have sponsored the SAFE Bridges Act, which would provide $2.75 billion to states for bridge repair in 2013 and 2014. The act would distribute funds among states through a needs-based formula based on each state’s share of deficient bridges.
He also sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee this week requesting additional money for bridges in its transportation funding bill. Most bridge projects in Maine are funded through a 80-20 split between federal and state money.
“Maine has made strides like many other states, but more resources and attention need to be paid to our aging infrastructure,” Michaud said in a prepared statement. “This is a safety and economic issue. We can’t compete in a global economy if we allow our transportation networks to decay.”
Two recent bridge collapses — one on Interstate 5 in Washington state in May, the other on state Route 202 in Arizona earlier this week — highlight the fragile state of the country’s transportation infrastructure. The Washington state bridge was last inspected in November, and the inspection report noted that several parts of the bridge had already been been damaged from being hit by big rigs.
Maine has slightly more than 2,400 bridges, 356 of them classified as deficient last year. With 14.8 percent of its bridges deemed deficient, Maine was ahead of the national average of 11 percent, but well below Pennsylvania, which had the highest percentage of deficient bridges at 24.5 percent. Florida and Nevada had the lowest, with 2.2 percent of bridges classified as deficient.
Highway bridges have three primary components: the deck, the substructure and the superstructure. During inspections, each component is given a rating between 0 and 9. If any of the components is rated 4 or below, the bridge is classified as deficient. Federal law requires that states inspect all bridges that are at least 20 feet every two years. Maine inspects its bridges once a year, sometimes more frequently for deficient bridges, Talbot said.
If a bridge is deemed unsafe — meaning that it could not support the average daily traffic — immediate action is taken, with the span posted for lower weight, or closed. Talbot said no bridge in Maine is classified as unsafe.
The study’s 2012 list of 356 deficient bridges in Maine is no longer up to date, since some bridges that were deemed deficient have been repaired or rehabilitated, while other bridges have been moved onto the list. Talbot said bridge inspectors submit regular reports to state engineers and then engineers decide which projects need immediate attention based on the funding available. Other considerations, including how heavily trafficked the bridge is, are factored into the decision as well.
The Department of Transportation work plan for 2013, 2014 and 2015 includes 126 bridge-related projects ranging from minor repairs to full replacement. Among the bridges slated for replacement are the Route 9 bridge in Scarborough, the Bridge Street bridge in Westbrook, the U.S. Route 201 bridge between Brunswick and Topsham, the Pine Street bridge between Biddeford and Saco and the Route 4A bridge that connects Hollis and Buxton.
Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, said MDOT has done a good job prioritizing bridge projects.
“But we can’t expect them to predict correctly how long a bridge might last before it needs immediate repair,” she said.
The biggest contributing factor in determining whether a bridge is deficient is its age. On average, structurally deficient bridges are 22 years older than all other bridges, according to the Transportation for America study. Thousands of bridges were built across the country to accommodate the federal highway system in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Federal Highway Administration estimates that it would cost approximately $76 billion to repair all deficient bridges nationwide. The state did not have an estimate for what it would cost to repair all of Maine’s deficient bridges.