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One-third of state bridges called deficient

HARTFORD — At least 10 of Connecticut's 5,354 bridges, including structures in Shelton, Westport and New Haven, were constructed in the style of the span that collapsed during
/ Source: The Connecticut Post

HARTFORD — At least 10 of Connecticut's 5,354 bridges, including structures in Shelton, Westport and New Haven, were constructed in the style of the span that collapsed during Minneapolis's rush hour.

State Transportation Commissioner Ralph J. Carpenter on Thursday ordered bridge safety staff to collect records on those bridges, dating back 10 years, for a review.

The state spans, built in the arch deck truss design, include the Commodore Hull Bridge on Route 8 over the Housatonic River and Route 110 in Shelton; the Merritt Parkway bridge over the Saugatuck River in Westport; and a bridge on East Rock Road over the Mill River in New Haven.

The Shelton bridge also appears on a state Department of Transportation list of the 19 spans in the poorest condition.

Wednesday afternoon's Minnesota disaster, in which dozens are feared dead after cars plunged about 60 feet to the Mississippi River, reminded the nation of the 1983 Mianus River bridge collapse on Interstate 95 in Greenwich that killed three.

The Mianus River bridge failure was caused by a deteriorated "pin and hanger" construction, in which a complete 100-foot-long section of the bridge's westbound section gave way in the early hours of June 28, 1983.

According to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation, inadequate inspection and maintenance on the bridge also played a primary role in its collapse. The DOT maintained the bridge design also was at fault, but a court ruled against the state a few years later.

Connecticut learned its lesson then, and set off on a 10-year, multi-billion-dollar rebuilding and improvement program, echoes of which were heard six weeks ago when Gov. M. Jodi Rell ordered that hundreds of bridges be inspected every two years, rather than four.

Rell on Thursday offered state DOT expertise, equipment and personnel to Minnesota Gov. Tom Pawlenty to help with the aftermath of the Minneapolis collapse.

Connecticut also is in the process of hiring more than 80 new DOT inspectors, many of whom will be assigned to bridge work.

Overall, Connecticut's bridges, many of which are pounded by daily interstate traffic far beyond the loads expected when they were built, are rated below the national average, according to a regional policy watchdog group.

While about 26 percent of bridges around the country are rated as deficient, nearly a third of Connecticut's are, the group said.

"The bridge collapse in Minneapolis serves as a tragic reminder that we must invest our transportation dollars in our existing infrastructure, and take infrastructure maintenance very seriously. said Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which used 2005 statistics.

"Other countries invest much more in sustaining their roads, highways, bridges and transit systems — we should follow their lead," she said.

But compared to other states, Connecticut is in relatively good shape when it comes to bridges, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

The 2006 National Bridge Inventory, maintained by the FHA, listed 351 of 4,166 Connecticut bridges as being "structurally deficient" — 8.4 percent of the state's total. Eleven states have a lower percentage.

Typically, a structurally deficient bridge has weight restrictions, including a prohibition on heavy-truck traffic.

Arizona has the smallest proportion of structurally deficient bridges, at 2.2 percent, and Oklahoma the highest, at 26.8 percent. Delaware has the fewest structurally deficient bridges, at 50, and Oklahoma the most, at 6,299.

There are 151 bridges in Fairfield and New Haven counties rated structurally deficient. Of those, 37 bridges are considered "basically intolerable." Ten of those bridges need to be replaced and 27 need repair, according to the inventory.

Among the most heavily trafficked are two steel-girder bridges on I-95.

One crosses the Byram River at the New York state line and the other, the Moses Wheeler Bridge, crosses the Housatonic River in Stratford and Milford. Both bridges carry between 111,000 and 127,000 cars a day and are on the DOT list of the state's worst bridges.

Speaker of the House James A. Amann on Thursday said he's been concerned for years about the Moses Wheeler Bridge, which is being rehabilitated by the DOT.

Amann said he is working on assuring adequate long-term capital funding for bridge repair in negotiations over the state's more-than $1.5 billion bond package, which is one of the last pieces of the budget that began July 1.

The bonding package is expected to be voted on in the General Assembly in September. "Our bridges must be a priority," Amann said in an interview, noting that the Moses Wheeler Bridge had originally been scheduled for work in 2005.

The FHA reported that a concrete bridge on the Merritt Parkway that crosses the Mill River, about a mile east of Route 58 in Fairfield, is among the 27 structurally deficient bridges in need of repair. That bridge carries about 70,500 cars a day.

Another arch deck truss bridge listed by the FHA, but not by the state DOT, is near the Naugatuck, Beacon Falls border on Beacon Valley Road near Exit 25 on Route 8, that services about 1,800 cars a day.

According to a December 2006 FHA report, two of Connecticut's 10 arch deck truss-style bridges were rated structurally deficient. One was described as functionally obsolete and doesn't conform to modern design standards.

Another bridge on the state's list of the worst bridges is on Route 34 over the Housatonic River at the Stevenson Dam.

Just hours before the Minnesota bridge collapsed, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., held a news conference with Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to unveil legislation that would establish a new way of paying for major infrastructure repairs.

The two lawmakers proposed establishing a "National Infrastructure Bank" that would provide financing — through the sale of tax-free bonds — for infrastructure projects of substantial regional and national significance.

"This measure can help rebuild our roads, bridges, transit and water systems, improve quality of life, and spur jobs and economic growth," Dodd said.

The senators said they have been working on the legislation for more than a year in response to reports from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the American Society of Civil Engineers highlighting the needs.

Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the state DOT, said Thursday that while the eight to 10 bridges are similar in design, none in Connecticut are exactly like the Interstate-35W bridge in Minneapolis.

That's one reason why the FHA and the DOT have different totals for the deck-truss design.

"Ours have other, different features," Nursick said, adding that the DOT has responsibility for all 5,354 bridges, including those owned by municipalities.

He said that since Rell's order, DOT inspectors and contractors are about a third of the way finished in inspecting the first batch of 561 bridges, which are expected to be completed by Sept. 30.

Nursick said some state bridges are inspected more often than every two years.

Rell, in a statement from her Capitol office, said more than 1,000 bridges that had been on a four-year inspection cycle are now on a two-year plan; 4,054 bridges were already on a two-year cycle and 154 spans are looked at more often than every two years.

"The DOT is committed to moving aggressively to a two-year bridge inspection program, and these numbers demonstrate that commitment," Rell said. "The safety of the public is our top priority and the people of Connecticut can be assured that we are making every effort to regularly inspect all of our bridges and keep them safe and well-maintained."