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Rahall asks for speedier update to bridge standards

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the wake of last month's bridge collapse in Washington state, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., is asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to speed up its implementation of new bridge inspection standards and requirements.

A highway law passed in 2012 requires the DOT to update its qualifications for bridge inspectors and its standards for when and how bridges should be inspected. But the law, The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, gave the DOT three years to make the changes.

In a letter sent Wednesday, Rahall, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, urged U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to pick up the pace.

"With one of every four bridges in the nation structurally deficient or functionally obsolete," Rahall wrote, "I strongly urge you to expedite implementation of new inspection standards and inspector training and qualifications."

In West Virginia the numbers are even higher. More than one of three bridges (36 percent) is structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, the seventh highest rate of any state in the country, according to Federal Highway Administration data.

Neither designation, structurally deficient nor functionally obsolete, necessarily means a bridge is unsafe and state officials stress that all open bridges are safe.

Structurally deficient is generally the more serious designation. It means that key parts of the bridge are in poor condition. Such bridges often have weight limits or other restrictions and require more maintenance. There are 952 structurally deficient bridges in West Virginia.

Functionally obsolete bridges were built to different standards than are used today. That could be something as benign as a two-lane bridge that now requires four lanes to serve increased traffic. But it could also portend something more ominous.

The bridge that collapsed into the Skagit River in Washington last month was functionally obsolete, but not structurally deficient. There are 1,595 functionally obsolete bridges in West Virginia.

The bridge in Washington also was deemed "fracture critical," meaning that if one key piece was taken out it could collapse.

So when a truck crashed into a support beam, a section of the bridge collapsed into the river.

About 7 percent of West Virginia's bridges, 478 in all, are "fracture critical," including the South Side Bridge and the Patrick Street Bridge in Charleston.

Rahall writes that the changes mandated by the 2012 law are crucial to help states evaluate their bridges and decide where to spend money on bridge maintenance or replacement.

"Implementation of these provisions," Rahall wrote, "will enable States to develop a risk-based prioritization of their highway bridge investments. Strengthening the bridge inspection standards and ensuring States are complying with the requirements of this program are critical to ensuring that highway bridges remain safe to the traveling public."

The law requires DOT to change how it oversees annual state bridge inspections and ratings. It also requires DOT to improve communication between itself and states regarding bridge problems.

Rahall writes that these changes are needed to address "critical shortcomings" in bridge safety programs.

Rahall also wrote on Wednesday to the inspector general of the DOT, Calvin Scovel, asking for updated information and recommendations stemming from previous audits of federal bridge programs.

"Over the past decade, you have issued a series of audit reports of the Highway Bridge Program and National Bridge Inspection Program that have raised serious concerns with FHWA's and the states' management and oversight of bridge safety programs," Rahall wrote.

Rahall specifically asked for the inspector general's assessment of changes that have been made in response to bridge program audits in 2006, 2009 and 2010.

Those audits, among other things, instructed the FHWA to work with states to regularly collect data and set quantifiable targets to measure what they were doing to improve the nation's bridges.

Rahall has served on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for all of his 36 years in Congress, including four years as the committee's vice chairman.

"I am extremely concerned about the condition and performance of the nation's highway bridges," Rahall wrote to Scovel. "From the collapse of West Virginia's Silver Bridge in 1967 to the more recent failures of Minnesota's I-35W Bridge and Washington's I-5 Skagit River Bridge, I have seen firsthand the devastating personal and economic costs of our decaying infrastructure."

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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