Bay Bridge, 8 others to be reinspected out of 'abundance of caution'

The Baltimore Sun

Responding to a federal appeal, Maryland's transportation secretary ordered last night new inspections of 10 Maryland bridges of a design similar to the Minnesota bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River on Wednesday evening.

Secretary John D. Porcari assured residents that the state's bridges are sound. "No Marylander should be concerned about the safety of our bridges," he said at a news conference earlier in the day. "When our bridges need repair, it's a priority. We make it happen."

Federal reports show that the overall percentage of Maryland bridges ranked as "structurally deficient" - a classification also applied to the failed Minnesota bridge - is significantly lower than the national average.

The Maryland bridges that will get a new look include both spans of the Bay Bridge and the Interstate 95 and U.S. 40 crossings of the Susquehanna River. State officials insisted that the bridges are safe and that they are acting out of "an abundance of caution."

Porcari's decision came after the Federal Highway Administration urged states last night to conduct immediate inspections of steel deck truss bridges like the Interstate 35W span that failed Wednesday night, killing at least four people. Officials fear that many more bodies will be found in their cars under the wreckage.

"Out of an abundance of caution, Secretary Porcari directed the State Highway Administration and the Maryland Transportation Authority to reinspect the state's 10 truss bridges," said state Transportation Department spokesman Jack Cahalan.

That statement came hours after Gov. Martin O'Malley and state transportation officials moved to dispel Maryland's anxiety over images of the Minneapolis wreckage.

At a news conference at the State Highway Administration operations center in Anne Arundel County, O'Malley expressed sorrow over the fatal collapse in Minneapolis but expressed confidence in Maryland's "very robust inspection system."

Federal reports indicate that 8.1 percent of Maryland's approximately 5,000 bridges - many of them on low-traffic country roads - earned a structurally deficient designation in 2006. That compares with more than 12 percent nationally and 25 percent in neighboring Pennsylvania.

Officials called the designation an "early warning sign" rather an indication of immediate danger.

O'Malley was joined at the news conference by Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Porcari and other transportation officials.

The secretary's order last night affects four bridges operated by the Maryland Transportation Authority, which manages toll facilities, and six maintained by the state highway agency.

None is identical to the Minnesota bridge, but they fall into the same broad classification. Both spans of the Bay Bridge have portions that are deck truss designs. The Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge on U.S. 40 and the Millard Tydings Memorial Bridge on I-95 also fall into that category.

The six other bridges are SHA-operated structures, most of them in Western Maryland. The nearest to Baltimore carries Route 32 over the Prettyboy Reservoir in Carroll County.

Cahalan said Porcari ordered the inspections even though all the bridges had been inspected this year or last. The spokesman said the most recent Bay Bridge inspection was completed in June.

At the news conference, Porcari and others vouched for the safety of that bridge - the economic lifeline between the Eastern Shore and the rest of the state. Officials stressed that the Bay Bridge, as well as the Key Bridge and the two tunnels under Baltimore Harbor, are inspected annually.

Geoffrey V. Kohlberg, chief engineer for the Maryland Transportation Authority, said that while the two spans of the Bay Bridge are designated as "functionally obsolete" because of capacity limitations, both structures are sound.

Even so, news of the Minnesota bridge collapse had some Marylanders contemplating the consequences of a catastrophic failure of a bridge that soars more than 180 feet over the Chesapeake Bay.

Carol Delayo, 50, of Centreville said she thought twice before crossing the bridge yesterday afternoon. The hesitation was unusual for her, she said, because her job selling new homes on the Eastern Shore usually requires her to help wary homebuyers get over "bridge fright."

"You know, I usually tell people: 'Don't worry about the bridge; it's just a road with water under it,'" she said. "But today when I was driving up to the bridge and saw that big hunk of concrete, I turned to my daughter and said, 'Are you thinking what I'm thinking?' It's a little nerve-racking."

There are no records of Maryland highway bridges collapsing as a result of structural failure - as opposed to other causes - since 1988, when part of a drawbridge in Pocomoke City fell into the Pocomoke River.

But the televised images of the Minneapolis disaster brought back earlier memories for Janet Hutson Councell, 80, of Caroline County. She was on the Maryland 404 bridge that crossed the Choptank River in Denton on March 22, 1976, when the structure collapsed under the 1969 Chrysler she was driving.

"Next thing you know, when we get on there, bam, bam, alacazam. And it broke down under the middle of the car," she recalled.

The retired schoolteacher said the front of the car remained on the pavement, while the rear wheels were hanging off the bridge. She and a co-worker walked away - badly bruised but otherwise unhurt. No one died in the incident.

State officials at yesterday's news conference stressed that Maryland's bridge inspection program has met far higher standards in recent years and wins consistent ratings of "excellent" in Federal Highway Administration audits. Federal officials did not return calls to determine how common that rating is.

Neil J. Pedersen, the state highway administrator, said Maryland officials would rather close a bridge than let it operate in an unsafe condition.

He noted that in 1988, his agency closed the Gov. Thomas Johnson Bridge - a heavily used Patuxent River span connecting St. Mary's and Calvert counties - after finding deep cracks in the deep-water piers.

The Pocomoke collapse, which came the same summer as the Gov. Thomas Johnson Bridge closing, prompted changes in Maryland's inspection process.

Pedersen said all Maryland bridges - even small ones that drivers hardly notice - are inspected every two years.

But a low percentage of structural deficiency is no guarantee a state can avoid disaster. Minnesota's record was also well below the national average and only slightly higher than Maryland's.

The Maryland state highway agency spends $95 million a year on bridge maintenance and repair, Pedersen said. During the last budget year, the agency used tens of millions of dollars in capital funds to replace about a dozen aging bridges.

Around the state yesterday, local transportation officials joined their state counterparts in assuring the public they're doing all they can to avoid such failures.

Baltimore Transportation Director Alfred H. Foxx and some of his staff took to the Russell Street Viaduct to assure people that the city's bridges are safe.

Baltimore has 298 bridges. During the last biannual inspection, which just wrapped up, 17 bridges were deemed in need of repair. The fixes have either been made or are in the city's capital improvements list, Foxx said. All of the problems with the local bridges were "minor" and none of those bridges is the same age as the bridge that collapsed in Minnesota, he added.

David Fidler, a Baltimore County public works spokesman, said the county hires private contractors to inspect each of its 480 bridges at least every two years.

The contractors report any needed repairs, assigning them one of three rankings: immediate, priority or routine. County engineers often perform their own inspections after the contractors submit their reports, Fidler said.

"There's several layers of the inspection and observation of these bridges," Fidler said. If engineers determine emergency repairs are needed, they close the bridge until work is complete, as they did with Long Green Pike bridge last month, he said.

Despite his assurances of safety, O'Malley said the collapse in Minneapolis underscores the need for the state and the nation to spend more on its infrastructure. Maryland has $40 billion in unmet transportation needs, the governor said.

"If there is any good to come out of this, perhaps it is that we realize we have a need to make investments to safeguard our infrastructure and improve it," O'Malley said. "We, as well as every state in the union, have a huge unmet need for investments in our infrastructure."

But O'Malley declined to link the incident with the state's debate over whether to increase gasoline taxes or other revenues to augment transportation funding.

Porcari said the $40 billion figure refers to improvements the state needs to make to improve its road and mass transit capacity. The state has enough money to maintain and safeguard its bridges, he said.

"Our first dollar goes to safety and system preservation," Porcari said. "It's basically taken off the top."

Sun reporters Andrew A. Green, Josh Mitchell, Arin Gencer, Jill Rosen, Greg Garland and Ruma Kumar contributed to this article.

An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun provided an incorrect location for a bridge on Route 32 in Carroll County that Maryland will re-inspect. The Route 32 bridge crosses the Liberty Reservoir.The Sun regrets the error.
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