Prevent bridge disasters


POSTED: Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Commuters around the country who cross bridges on their way to work were horrified two years ago when a bridge in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi, killing 13 people. Since then, public officials have taken seriously the yearly list of bridges in need of repair, and Hawaii officials have correctly agreed to fix bridges when the economy recovers.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty had twice vetoed legislation to raise that state's gas tax to pay for transportation needs. Hawaii House Transportation Chairman Joe Souki wants to raise gasoline vehicle taxes to generate $4 billion for bridge and roadway upgrades.

Gov. Linda Lingle has vetoed various proposed tax hikes in the middle of a recession, but she supports Souki's proposed tax increases as soon as the economy recovers, as does Senate Transportation Chairman J. Kalani English. It would cost the average taxpayer about $170 a year.

Paul Santo, a bridge design engineer for the state, told Better Roads magazine, which publishes the yearly list of the fatigued bridges, that while federal stimulus money has “;assisted in funding a couple of bridges, it has not made a significant difference.”;

He said the bridges need “;more funding at all levels.”;

A 2003 study by civil engineers examined more than 500 bridge collapses in the United States and found that the average age of the failed structures was 52.5 years. Floods and normal water and debris runoff accounted for more than half the breakdowns.

Six city bridges on Oahu that are considered structurally deficient were erected from 1913 to 1942, and the city is at various stages of repairing them, along with four bridges built in the 1960s. Collins Lam, deputy director of the city's Design and Construction Department, said the city may need to increase its budget to go forward with repairs.

The state plans to fix 13 of 50 structurally derelict bridges along Kamehameha Highway over the next six years at a cost of $78.1 million. Meanwhile, Tammy Mori of the state Department of Transportation said the bridges are “;closely monitored and they are safe.”;

In an e-mail, Mori said the state's bridges “;are generally in fair to good condition and they are safe. When a bridge is on our structurally deficient or functionally obsolete list, it does not mean that the bridge is dangerous.”;

Politicians paid little attention to Better Bridges' annual list of faulty bridges after the collapse of the Minneapolis span, which was blamed on a design error. That has changed, and government officials should appreciate the need for thorough review and repairs.