Maryland's top transportation official on Thursday ordered immediate inspections of 27 aging, state-owned bridges after a chunk of concrete fell on a Prince George's County woman's car from the bottom of the Interstate 495 overpass in Morningside.
The bridges — each were built before 1969 and go over other roads — include one in the city, eight in Baltimore County and one in Howard County. Many of the bridges already have been designated for repairs, but it could take years for that construction to begin, according to the Department of Transportation.
"Motorists should not have to think twice about driving across or under one of our bridges," Acting Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said in a statement. "These targeted statewide inspections will help us immediately identify any bridges in need of repair, with the goal of preventing what happened on Tuesday from occurring again."
The region's largest automobile club "applauded the effort" to ensure all Maryland's bridges are safe.
"It's one of those unfortunate reminders that truly illustrate the need for adequate transportation funding," said Ragina Cooper Averella, public and government affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "That's our key takeaway on this."
Nearly 3 percent of the 2,903 bridges maintained by the State Highway Administration and the Maryland Transportation Authority are "structurally deficient," which the Federal Highway Administration defines as safe for travel but in need of significant rehabilitation or replacement.
Any immediate repairs that are needed may cause traffic delays beyond the inspections, which typically take a few days, the transportation department said.
Rahn apologized Thursday to Katherine Dean, the Prince George's County grandmother whose windshield and hood were damaged by concrete falling on her car on Suitland Road as she was out running errands.
"I want to extend my sincere apologies to the driver involved," Rahn said. "I am grateful she was not injured."
Dean has retained Ashcraft and Gerel, a Baltimore law firm. Her lawyer, Steve Gensemer, said she spent time in the hospital recovering from "physical, mental and emotional" trauma.
The inspections indicate "the state finally coming to their senses" regarding aging and structurally deficient bridges, Gensemer said. "The fact that they're taking a closer examination of 27 of them is certainly a good start."
Debate about bridge safety has been stoked in recent years by a number of high-profile structural failures.
In August 2007, a bridge collapse on Interstate 35 in Minneapolis during rush hour killed 13 people and injured more than 100. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the collapse on the bridge design; a faulty gusset plate was too thin.
In 2013, a large part of a bridge on Interstate 5 north of Seattle collapsed, sending cars and people into the cold waters of the Skagit River. Nobody died. The bridge failed after a truck carrying an oversize load struck it.
In June 1999, an unused concrete pedestrian bridge in Arbutus was hit by a tractor-trailer and collapsed on the Baltimore beltway, killing one driver and injuring three others.
The American Society of Civil Engineers grades the nation's infrastructure every four years. Overall, bridges across the country received a "C+" in 2013. The average U.S. bridge is 42 years old.
Maryland received a "B-" in the latest study. The state has a total of 5,300 bridges, about half of which are maintained by the state.
The findings showed that 333, or 6.3 percent, of the bridges were structurally deficient. These bridges must be inspected every year because critical load-bearing structures were in poor condition from damage or deterioration, the group said.Structurally deficient bridges were more likely to be in urban areas.
Another 1,085 bridges, or 20.5 percent, were functionally obsolete and no longer meet current standards for bridge construction. Those bridges, for example, could have narrow lanes or load-bearing standards below those for bridges built today.
In comparison, the grouprated 23 percent of Pennsylvania's 22,660 bridges as structurally deficient. Nineteen percent were rated functionally obsolete.
According to State Highway Administration data, funding for "Bridge System Preservation" in Maryland jumped from $62.2 million in fiscal 2002 to $176.1 million in fiscal 2014. The program is funded by state and federal dollars, but the increased state gas tax has been a major factor in boosting state support and attracting matching federal dollars.
Officials say the result has been a better track record for bridge repairs than in other states.
Andy Herrmann, past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said bridge decks can last 25 to 50 years, depending on the location and climate. Across the country, he said, problems arise because states defer regular maintenance to use the money in other areas.
"If you don't keep up on maintenance, it comes back to cost more in emergency repairs," he said.
Michael Kreger, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Alabama who has written extensively on the corrosion of bridges and concrete structures, said it's common for concrete to fall off older bridges in climates where temperatures fluctuate. Marylanders shouldn't fear driving on bridges built before 1969, he added.
"It doesn't mean they're ready to fall all around us," he said. "But it's an indication that it's deteriorating. It's part of the freeze and thaw cycles. It's just going to happen."
In Baltimore, the State Highway Administration and the Maryland Transportation Authority will inspect Interstate 895 at Newkirk and Ponca streets, just north of the Harbor Tunnel.
Inspections in Baltimore County include Mount Carmel Road over I-83 in Hereford, I-83 over Padonia Road in Lutherville-Timonium, Route 151 over Patapsco & Back River Railroad in Sparrows Point, the I-695 inner loop at Benson Avenue and U.S. 1, Crosby Road over I-695 in Woodlawn, I-695 at Milford Mill Road and Putty Hill Road over I-695.
The Tridelphia Road bridge over Route 32 in Glenelg in Howard County also will be inspected.
Many of the 27 bridges slated for inspection were built in the 1950s and '60s. The oldest on the list, Route 195 over Sligo Creek Parkway in Takoma Park, dates to 1932. Funding for repairs already has been set aside for that bridge and for the I-895 overpass in Baltimore, the state transportation department said.
Designs are underway for repairs or replacements for the others on the list — usually a two- to three-year process, said Chuck Brown, a spokesman for the transportation department.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.