On the fifth anniversary of a deadly bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Barry B. LePatner — lawyer and author of “Too Big to Fall: America's Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward” — launched a new website to draw attention to the nearly 8,000 bridges in the United States deemed structurally deficient.
LePatner said Tuesday he was shocked by the bridge failure that killed 13 people during rush-hour traffic, so he began researching the state of bridges across America.
“No one should ever have to go through that in our country ever again,” he said.
The number of red-listed bridges in use disturbed him, he said. “Why are you letting us go over bridges that could collapse? We have to start becoming angry.”
There are 7,980 other bridges in the U.S. that have been designated structurally deficient and fracture critical, he said.
He released his research in a book “Too Big to Fall” in 2010, and launched his Save Our Bridges website on Aug. 1, the fifth anniversary of the Minneapolis bridge tragedy.
According to LePatner, in China 9 percent of their G.D.P. is spend on infrastructure, in Europe 5 percent is spent on infrastructure. “In the United States we're slightly above 2 percent and we're the United States. That's a sorry state of affairs and nothing good comes of it.”
Too little is being spent repairing America's bridges, he said.
“We just can't afford to keep waiting and passing the buck down the line because along the way we're going to have more tragedies,” LePatner said. “And New Hampshire is no different than any other state. We're all in this together. That's what the map shows. What are we waiting for?”
The money may flow from Washington, D.C., but it is up to the states how to spend the funds, LePatner said.
While N.H. Department of Transportation officials agreed on Tuesday that too little money is designated for infrastructure repairs, they said unsafe bridges in New Hampshire are closed or limited to a certain tonnage weight for safety.
“We lack the necessary funding to keep up with our infrastructure right now and that's our roads and bridges. It's a national crisis,” said DOT spokesman Bill Boynton. “Every time we add one, it seems like we are adding another one, so it's a never-ending list. I think the escalating costs make it hard to keep up.”
The cost of materials from steel to concrete has increased over the years, meaning fewer projects get tackled than in the past.
When asked about red-listed bridges in the state, Boynton said, “It's a pretty long list. I don't even know where to start.”
A bridge is “red listed” when it is deemed structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The later may not mean the bridge is in need of repair.
“Just about every covered bridge is structurally obsolete, but it's holding up just fine,” Boynton said.
The state maintains 2,143 bridges, 140 of which are red listed, while municipalities maintain 1,685 bridges, 353 of which are red listed.
In 1996 the number of red-listed state bridges topped at 156, so the number has gone down, said DOT Administrator of Bridge Design Mark Richardson.
“It varies from year to year,” he said.
The Minneapolis bridge was in need of a repair when it collapsed, but there were other issues, Richardson said. “The bridge in Minnesota had a lot of things affecting it when it collapsed,” including a design flaw and heavy construction materials weighing it down.
“Those combining issues were the essential reasons why the bridge collapsed,” Richardson said.
DOT has four teams of bridge inspectors covering the state. Every bridge in the state is inspected every two years. Red-listed municipal bridges are inspected once a year, and state red-listed bridges are inspected twice a year.
In July 2011, DOT closed the number one red-listed bridge, Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth, eight months before a reconstruction of the bridge was to take place because engineers felt it was unsafe, Boynton said.
Any question of public safety causes DOT engineers to close or limit the weight the bridge can hold, Richardson said.
“As long as people use it with the posted weight limit, then we view it as safe for public use,” Richardson said.
People can and should feel safe on New Hampshire bridges, he said.
The new $82 million bridge to replace the Memorial Bridge is currently being constructed off site. Because the bridge connects Portsmouth to Kittery, Maine, New Hampshire and Maine share the project's cost.
The Sarah Long Bridge, which carries the U.S. Route 1 Bypass over the Piscataqua River between Portsmouth, and Kittery, Maine, is now the number one red-listed bridge in the state and the next big bridge project coming up for the state. The lift bridge was built in 1940.
Again, New Hampshire and Maine are working together to plan for its replacement.
Richardson said that from his perspective considering the cost of the projects and the $140 billion to $150 billion the federal government doles out each year for New Hampshire roads and bridges, there is not enough money to keep up with the cost of maintaining safe bridges.
“We could make use of more funding,” Richardson said. “There is not enough funding to meet the needs of the bridges in the state, not at the current level.”
Only $8 million a year is set aside to help fund municipal bridge projects.
“We are eight to 10 years out at the very least to fund the projects municipalities are asking us to fund,” Richardson said. “I think if we had additional funds, we could certainly make good use of them in terms of maintaining bridges in the state.”
On the local level, infrastructure funding is lacking for sure, but Peterborough Public Works Director Rodney Bartlett suggests that the red tape involved with bridge and other infrastructure projects means fewer improvements get made.
The Main Street Bridge in Peterborough was placed on the municipal red list in 2007. At the time, a repair project was expected to cost around $1 million.
After the town received permission from the state to start the preliminary engineering work, the concrete deck of the bridge was found to be so deteriorated it increased the project's costs because it was no longer a bridge rehabilitation but a reconstruction.
The findings also led to a 15-ton weight limit being placed on the bridge, Bartlett said.
Historical and cultural issues surrounding the 1939 stone-arch bridge — that abuts both the Peterborough Town Library, the first public library in the United States, and Route 202, a federal highway maintained by the state — also led to an increase in project costs.
The estimated cost of the project is just under $5 million, which means it is too costly to apply to the state bridge-aid program that was to have covered 80 percent of the project.
Bartlett said he is now hoping federal bridge funds will come through so that the project can take place in 2016.
All of the environmental, historical and cultural restrictions placed on infrastructure projects add to the time and money needed to get these projects done, Bartlett said.
“There are many, many, many interested parties in that bridge. … I don't know if that's good or bad. I think maintaining the historic features are important, but there's a financial impact,” Bartlett said, which in this case equals about $1 million of the estimated cost.
With so little money coming to the state for these infrastructure projects, it may be time to cut the red tape and just get the projects done.
“Do we let these bridges fall into the river because we can't afford all the restrictions on them? Or do we look at doing these things differently,” Bartlett said. “We have infrastructure that's collapsing and we need to do something about that.”
And it's not just roads and bridges, water and wastewater projects are facing these same issues, Bartlett said.
Peterborough's new wastewater plant that was put on line this year cost just under $13 million, Bartlett said. “It's a great facility, doing an excellent job treating the wastewater. … All good things. But $13 million for 1,200 users?
“We need to learn how to do these projects differently so our infrastructure doesn't crumble under our feet,” he said.
The Save Our Bridges interactive map can be found at http://www.saveourbridges.com/map.html.
“This is about a grassroots movement to create a change that is desperately needed to protect our citizens,” LePatner said.
Meghan Pierce may be reached at email@example.com.