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The Detroit Free Press: 1,400 Michigan bridges need fixing; spans rated 13th worst

Tuesday, March 29, 2011   (0 Comments)
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More than 13% of Michigan's highway bridges are structurally deficient, a number that will only grow as thousands of spans statewide approach their 50-year life expectancy, transportation leaders warned Monday.

With about 1,400 bridges labeled structurally deficient by federal standards, Michigan ranks 13th worst in the nation in the number of bridges in poor condition, according to a report released Monday by Transportation for America, a transportation advocacy group. The national average is 11.5%.

Michigan's nearly 11,000 highway bridges are, on average, 41 years old. About 185,000 U.S. bridges are 50 or older, and that number could double by 2030.

A label of "structurally deficient" doesn't mean a bridge is unsafe, but rather that it's showing wear and tear, and needs repair. Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle said during a news media briefing Monday that bridges in that category are inspected more frequently and would be closed immediately if they posed a risk to drivers.

"If the bridge is open, the bridge is safe," Steudle said. "We take that very seriously."

Despite the troubled U.S. economy, Transportation for America urged more federal spending to improve the nation's bridges.

"Safety has to have priority over budget cutbacks," said the group's Michigan organizer, CeCe Grant.

Supporters have tried for years to boost highway spending in Michigan, but the effort hasn't gained traction in the recession-battered state. Gas taxes and vehicle registrations are the primary source of road funding in Michigan. The state's gas tax, 19 cents a gallon, was last raised in 1997.

Michigan is hardly alone in being too broke to keep up with bridge repairs. Transportation for America said a broader national study it will release Wednesday found one in nine U.S. bridges in poor condition. Michigan was one of 23 states with more structurally deficient bridges than the national average.

After the I-35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007, MDOT stepped up bridge inspections and began posting inspection reports quarterly on its website,

Steudle said not all bridges in poor shape need to be completely replaced.

"With the right kind of maintenance, bridge life can be extended many years longer" than the typical 50 years.

Keith Ledbetter, legislative affairs director for the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, said deferred maintenance to bridges can cost three times as much as preventive repairs. Ledbetter and others said MDOT has done a good job fixing bridges with what money the state has, but funding needs a big boost.

Grant said it's estimated the U.S. would need to spend nearly $71 billion to get bridges currently rated deficient back into good shape. Nearly 70,000 bridges nationwide are considered structurally deficient.

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