WAFF 48 Investigates: Relabeling deficient bridges - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

WAFF 48 Investigates: Relabeling deficient bridges

'Functionally obsolete' may not imply inherent danger. 'Functionally obsolete' may not imply inherent danger.

The state of Alabama may need to be more clear about the safety of the state's bridges, lawmakers and transportation engineers said.

A WAFF 48 investigation revealed that, while thousands of the state's bridges are labeled "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete," those labels do not imply that bridges are in danger of collapse and the state Department of Transportation doesn't make that clear.

A study of the state's bridge inspection results by the transportation advocacy group TRIP says 3600 bridges in Alabama, 23 percent of the state's 16,000 bridges, have been classified as "structurally deficient or "functionally obsolete."

Those designations often bring frightened questions to engineers with the Alabama Department of Transportation. "They want to know," said ALDOT engineer William Sean Butler.  "You tell them that you're over bridge inspection and they want to know how the bridges in the division are and how safe they are."

ALDOT is quick to clarify that even the worst of its bridges are not about to collapse under your minivan and that a designation of "structurally deficient" simply means a bridge may need to be repaired or inspected more often because it's getting older.

"That scares some people but 'structurally deficient' doesn't mean that it's unsafe to drive on," said Butler. "It's just that it's in a condition that we might need to take more priority in looking at it or look at it with greater frequency,"

"With age comes some form of deterioration, which means that at some point in time [a bridge] is going to age to the point where it begins to break down," said ALDOT division engineer Johnny Harris. "That ‘structurally deficient' number just gives us an idea of where are we in the process."

Likewise, "functionally obsolete" is routinely applied to bridges, some built 50, 60 or 70 years ago which simply weren't built to today's standards for features like breakdown lanes, approaches, medians or width."

"Any bridge that is less than 44 feet wide, which is our current standard, would be considered functionally obsolete," Harris explained, "That's just one example, even if there's nothing physically wrong with it."  

ALDOT engineers grant that they may be contributing to the lack of clarity with their own communication habits. "It's one of our, I guess, shortcomings as engineers" Harris said. "We tend to get caught up in the technical language more than having to try to break it down into more everyday language and layman's terms."

A TRIP spokesman says the group wants to present its information responsibly but that "the real fear is an economic fear. Each day [bridges]'re taking a pounding. You're seeing bridges that, down the road, could be restricted or closed and that could be devastating for a community." 

By request, ALDOT does provide a fact sheet that clarifies that its "deficient" bridges are not unsafe. But that information is not available on the ALDOT website.

Other states, like Virginia, post detailed explanations of those intimidating engineering terms online.

State Senator Arthur Orr of the Senate Transportation committee said it may indeed be time to get clearer about bridge conditions.

"We'll work with the department of transportation," Orr said, "and maybe put some clearer definitions as to what this means in lay terms for the travelers of Alabama and get that up on the website so that information's out there."

Engineers with ALDOT, as well as outsiders such as former Huntsville city civil engineer Mark Seely agreed Alabama's troubles with less-than-ideal bridges could mean inconvenience for motorists and expense for taxpayers to repair or replace deteriorating bridges, but not danger for drivers trying to cross them.

'Me personally as a motorist, for the most part, I feel pretty safe," Seely said

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