Nadine Mohney is one of the many people who drive across the Harford Road Bridge each day. And each time, it scares her.
“Every time I cross the bridge the thought comes into my mind, ‘Is this the time? Is this the time the bridge is going to collapse and I’m going to die?’ ” said Mohney, who drives across the span as many as four times a day while dropping off and picking up her daughter from school.
The Federal Highway Administration has listed the 106-year-old Harford Road Bridge in “poor” condition for at least a decade, according to agency records. And the disrepair shows. Last year, water gushed from the bridge’s side after a water main break. Pieces of concrete have been known to fall off into Herring Run Park below.
Drivers make millions of crossings on Maryland bridges each day — from busy interstate overpasses to urban viaducts and rural spans. Some of these spans — their median age is 46 years — have been in use for far longer than their designers intended.
The Baltimore Sun looked at which bridges in the region are listed in “poor” condition by the Federal Highway Administration — and in particular, which have been “poor” for several years.
To be clear, “poor” condition doesn’t mean a bridge is unsafe — officials and experts emphasize that a bridge found to be structurally unsound would be closed. Still, such bridges can be a nuisance, damaging to cars, particularly tires. And the costs for repairing long-deteriorating bridges increase with every year.
And high-profile bridge collapses, such as one in Minneapolis in 2007 and another in Italy this summer, offer reminders of the dangers of aging infrastructure. The Interstate 35 span had been rated ‘structurally deficient’ as early as 1990, more than a decade before it crumbled during rush hour — a collapse federal investigators attributed to a longstanding design flaw, not old age.
The Sun’s analysis found that:
» 288 (5.4 percent) of the bridges in Maryland were classified as being in both “poor” and “structurally deficient” condition in the FHA’s 2017 National Bridge Inventory. That’s less than the national average of 7.7 percent.
» 66 (2.6 percent) of the bridges owned or maintained by the State Highway Administration were listed as being in “poor” condition, according to the FHA data, which is based on information submitted in April 2017.
» 33 city-owned bridges in Baltimore were in “poor” condition. That’s 13 percent — nearly double the national average.
» Many bridges throughout the region have been in “poor” condition for a long time. Twenty of Baltimore’s 33 “poor” city-owned bridges have been in that condition for 10 years or more. In Baltimore County, there were 36 bridges listed in “poor” condition, 11 of which have been in “poor” condition for 10 years or more. In Harford County, 21 bridges were listed in “poor” condition, more than half of which have been in such condition for 10 years or more.
Some of the Maryland bridges listed as “poor” might have been repaired or replaced already. The federal data won’t be updated until next year.
For example, after an emergency closure in December 2016, the Gwynnbrook Avenue bridge in Owings Mills was replaced and reopened to traffic in January. The Wicomico Street bridge in Southwest Baltimore was finally dismantled last year, nearly a decade after railroad conglomerate CSX had promised to tear it down.
And the State Highway Administration recently replaced Interstate 695 bridges over Milford Mill Road and over Southwestern Boulevard, Lees Avenue and the Amtrak rail line.
Other bridges are under construction or “under design” for rehabilitation or replacement. The design phase for bridges typically takes three to five years, said Chris Brown, a bridge project engineer for the Baltimore City Department of Transportation.
But some can take much longer. The Harford Road Bridge spent close to 15 years “under design” until a project for its replacement was finally approved this year.
Below is a snapshot of bridges in Baltimore and the surrounding area that have spent at least a decade in disrepair, according to the Federal Highway Administration’s latest report.
The map also contains more recent information on the current status of the bridges where available, obtained directly from the state and county highway administrations:
The cost of waiting
Rehabilitating old bridges is expensive, and needed funds aren’t always available.
“One of the things that it comes down to is money,” said bridge engineer Andy Herrman, a former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
In lieu of making all needed repairs, engineers sometimes repair only the bridge surface. For example, Baltimore City recently spent $400,000 to repave the Hanover Street Bridge.
But that’s far from enough to fix the the century-old span, which was first described as “structurally deficient” in 2015. A study released earlier this year recommended $50 million in upgrades to fully rehabilitate the bridge. Another estimate by the city put the cost at more than $100 million.
While repairs can be costly, delays can be even more expensive, Herrman said.
“If you leave the bridge in poor condition,” he said, “the deterioration starts accelerating.”
But drivers shouldn’t fear bridges that are in “poor” condition, experts say. Bridges are inspected at least every two years, and more often if there’s something wrong with them, Herrman said.
“If [a bridge] were unsafe for public travel it would be closed,” said Nancy Singer, a spokeswoman for the Federal Highway Administration, which regulates bridge safety.
In the past, the FHA has classified bridges that need major repairs as “structurally deficient.” Moving forward, however, the agency is using a good-fair-poor rating system.
Three main elements go into a bridge’s rating: the deck, or surface; the superstructure, usually beams and other elements that support the deck; and the substructure, such as piers that hold up the deck and superstructure. Each element is rated from zero (closed to traffic) to nine (nearly new). If any element is rated four or below, federal standards require that the bridge be classified as being in “poor” condition.
Multiple agencies own Maryland’s bridges
The State Highway Administration maintains roughly half of Maryland’s more than 5,000 bridges.
Although 66 state bridges are listed as being in “poor” condition, according to the most recent FHA data, the SHA’s “Year in Review” report says the agency has replaced or rehabilitated 41 bridges by the beginning of 2018. Of those, 31 are completed and open to the public, while 10 remain under construction, according to a list provided by SHA.
The other half of the state’s bridges are owned by up to 15 different types of agencies, including county highway agencies, city or municipal highway agencies, state toll authorities, private owners and others. There’s even one bridge owned by NASA — a federal access road in Prince George’s County.
Baltimore is unique in that it controls all the untolled bridges within its boundaries. Most of the city’s bridges that have been in “poor” condition for at least a decade are included in this year’s Capital Improvement Program, a six-year plan that identifies capital projects in need of funding, according to Kathy Dominick, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Department of Transportation.
In the meantime, “repairs are made as necessary on many bridge structures to maintain or improve their condition,” Dominick said.
Some jurisdictions blame the backlog of bridges in need of repair on cuts to local governments’ share of state highway user revenues — gas and motor vehicle fees collected by the state and shared between the state and local governments.
For local counties and municipalities, these funds had been the “workhorse” for capital projects like road and bridge repairs, said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties. But a reshuffling of the formulas used to allocate funds after the 2008 recession largely left local governments in the lurch when it came to transportation projects, Sanderson said.
“Local counties are now carrying about 90 percent of bridge and road maintenance costs,” said Cynthia Mumby, a spokeswoman for the Harford County government.
In May, Governor Larry Hogan signed into law a bill that would bolster counties’ share of highway user revenues. But this would only reduce the burden borne by local counties to 80 percent, Mumby said.
Bridge to the future
Multiple factors have held up plans to replace the Harford Road Bridge. This year, the city’s Board of Estimates awarded a $19 million contract to French-owned Technopref Industries to tear it down and build a new one.
Demolition is expected to begin this fall — but it could be years before the replacement bridge is opened.
Engineers say the current bridge remains safe for travel. But Mohney, the Lauraville mom, remains unnerved by what she sees as a safety hazard.
“It's going to take someone to die before they actually do it,” she said.
Below is a map of bridges in Baltimore and the surrounding area, color-coded by bridge condition as of the latest Federal Highway Administration report:
Note: Only bridges with valid geographical coordinates were mapped.
Map data sources: Federal Highway Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, BridgeReports.com.
To learn more about the methodology and review the computer code that generated the analysis, go to www.baltimoresun.com/bridgedata.
4:30 p.m. Oct. 9: This story has been updated to reflect what investigators said was the cause of the Interstate 35 collapse.