PORTLAND — The Maine Department of Transportation insists all state-owned bridges are safe despite a review of federal data indicating dozens of them have multiple red flags.
Chip Getchell, who is in charge of bridge planning for the Maine transportation department, said he is satisfied the bridges are safe because the state is aggressive in terms of addressing potential structural flaws.
In fact, the state conducts more inspections than mandated on those classified as “fracture critical” because failure of a single component could cause a collapse.
“We don’t lose any sleep at night. If we did lose sleep at night, we’d either fix, post or close the bridge,” he said, referring to the department’s bridge options.
The Associated Press analyzed data involving 607,380 bridges in the National Bridge Inventory that are subject to National Bridge Inspection Standards. On a national basis, there are 65,605 structurally deficient bridges and 20,808 fracture critical bridges, according to the most recently available federal government data.
Some 7,795 bridges fall into both categories — a double red flag.
In Maine, however, the number of bridges falling into both categories was relatively small, given the state’s many rivers and streams, with 47 bridges meeting both criteria. Of those, 39 are owned by the state transportation department. Already, 29 of those bridges are “in the pipeline” in terms of design, repair or overhaul, and 11 are either weight-restricted or closed, Getchell said.
Since the data became available, six of the bridges on the list, including Memorial Bridge between Maine and New Hampshire and the Veterans Memorial Bridge in South Portland, have been replaced outright, and two more have been repaired, Getchell said. Construction is underway on the St. John River bridge in Fort Kent.
But several key bridges still await rehabilitation or replacement. Those include two Penobscot River bridges in Lincoln and Enfield, the St. John River bridge in Madawaska, the Androscoggin River bridge in Lisbon, the Royal River bridge in Yarmouth and the Kennebunk River bridge near Kennebunkport’s Dock Square.
The state pays close attention to those bridges that are deemed “fracture critical,” meaning they don’t have redundant protections and are at risk of collapse if a single, vital component fails. Federal guidelines require a hands-on inspection every two years, but the department of transportation inspects them every year, Getchell said.
The state produced a 2008 report, “Keeping Our Bridges Safe,” after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis and followed up with a top-to-bottom look at the state’s inspection program, inventory and capital program. The state Legislature also approved extra funding of $40 million a year for four years.
Maria Fuentes, of the Maine Better Transportation Association, said the state is lucky to have a smart and dedicated team that’s responsible for overseeing bridges. But she said the state is plagued by older bridges and funding shortfalls, which are exacerbated with the end of the supplemental funding, leaving only $70 million a year.
As it stands, one in six Maine bridges is considered structurally deficient, meaning they’ve been restricted to light vehicles, closed to traffic or require rehabilitation, and require monitoring or repairs.
“We do well with the money that we have, but we’re getting to the point where if there isn’t an influx of money, we’re kind of rolling the dice,” Fuentes said.