Cracks & Corrosion: Aging U.S. Bridges at Risk

Dozens of the nation's highway bridges that fell into disrepair 25 years ago still need overhauls to fix cracks, corrosion and other long-festering problems, a USA TODAY analysis of federal inspection records shows.

At least 96 interstate highway bridges rated "structurally deficient" by government inspectors in 1982 had the same rating last year, suggesting they weren't fixed or had lapsed and again require repair, according to the records. Those spans carry 3.8 million cars and trucks every day.

Such crossings face increased scrutiny after an interstate bridge in Minneapolis plummeted into the Mississippi River on Aug. 1, killing 13 people and triggering a wave of renewed safety inspections across the country. That collapse, still under investigation, also sparked calls from lawmakers to accelerate long-delayed — and costly — repairs.

"I think the challenge is that as these bridges continue to have their lives extended with maintenance, the states don't have the funds to go ahead with the types of replacements that some of the bridges will ultimately need," says Frank Moretti, director of policy and research for TRIP, a transportation advocacy group.

Some of the 96 bridges appear not to have undergone major overhauls since they were listed as deficient in 1982.

Many others have been fixed and since relapsed to being "structurally deficient" again. That rating means some parts of the bridge need to be scheduled for repair or replacement.

The Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed Aug. 1 was listed as deficient in 1990, though investigators did not judge it dangerous. About 2,800 interstate spans were listed as deficient last year, U.S. Transportation Department records show.

"We're confident these bridges are safe," says Charles Carrier, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation in New York, where 35 bridges made the list. "If we can't keep them safe, we close them."

Carrier and authorities in other states said some of the bridges have been patched this year, and others are scheduled for repairs. Most will need to be replaced or overhauled, says Kazem Farhoumand of the Rhode Island Transportation Department.

"You need more than just maintenance," he says. "You have to spend a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of effort."

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the Minneapolis bridge collapse. Investigators are checking the bridge's de-icing system and examining the weight of construction materials and vehicles that were on it before it fell.