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588 Mass. bridges 'deficient'

State poring over records of faulty spans

Approximately 10 percent of the 5,500 bridges in Massachusetts are classified under federal standards as "structurally deficient," including 65 well-traveled bridges with such serious defects that they may need to be replaced and at least 10 with a design similar to the span that collapsed in Minneapolis on Wednesday.

In February, the last time the Federal Highway Administration's bridge registry was updated, 588 bridges in the state were deemed structurally deficient, the same classification as the bridge that fell into the Mississippi River, killing at least four people. These bridges are not necessarily unsafe or at risk of collapse. The rating indicates the bridge has problems that need to be monitored or repaired.

Governor Deval Patrick ordered transportation officials yesterday to reexamine the inspection records for about 40 bridges in Massachusetts similar in design to the Interstate 35 West bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed. He also pledged that he will include money for bridge repair in a five-year state construction plan to be released next week.

"I want people to be assured that our team is very focused on learning everything we can from what happened in Minneapolis and [that] we don't at this early stage see a reason for alarm," Patrick said. "We do see -- and we saw before the accident -- a reason to invest again in our public infrastructure."

Local transportation specialists and engineers said the Minnesota collapse, while still under investigation, underscored the dangers of delaying maintenance on critical bridges, which they have been warning about for years.

"A failure like this is a real wake-up call," said John A. Ochsendorf, a structural engineer and associate professor at MIT. "It reminds us that we can't take our infrastructure for granted. We need to consistently invest new money into what we've already built."

This week, the Pioneer Institute, a think tank, released a report titled "Our Legacy of Neglect," documenting a lack of funding for transportation infrastructure in Massachusetts. In March, a panel of specialists commissioned by the governor and the Legislature reported that the state would need $15 billion to $19 billion more over 20 years to repair and maintain the road and rail network.

"We have been starving our public infrastructure for a long time here in Massachusetts," Patrick said.

State transportation spokesman John Lamontagne said Massachusetts has 558 structurally deficient bridges managed by the state and related agencies, such as the MBTA -- 30 fewer than the federal database showed. The discrepancy between the state and federal numbers could not be explained immediately.

States across the country and region were also assessing the safety of their bridges yesterday. Governor John Baldacci of Maine reassured motorists that the state's bridges are safe and inspected regularly, but he also ordered checks of bridges that are listed as structurally deficient by the Federal Highway Administration. New Hampshire Transportation Commissioner Charles O'Leary said the state's nearly 4,000 bridges are safe, though 500 of them have been flagged by the state due to safety concerns.

Massachusetts transportation officials said yesterday that they were reviewing inspection records for an estimated 38 steel truss deck bridges that are similar to the Minnesota span that collapsed. The officials have also contacted Minnesota transportation agencies to request that they share information about what may have caused the accident.

"We're as anxious as everyone to find out what went wrong, because that will obviously help us think about what we need to do here in Massachusetts to deal with the safety issue," said Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen. "Until we know more about what went wrong, it's hard to know what specific actions we might want to take."

Massachusetts has one of the oldest transportation infrastructures in the nation, including 200 bridges that were built in the 19th century, state officials say. About a third of the state's bridges were built between 1900 and 1950, and 42 percent were built between 1950 and 1970.

The National Bridge Inventory, which compiles state and federal inspection data and is updated annually, ranks the condition of bridges, as well as highway ramps, based on the quality of the deck and the support system.

Each bridge gets a deficiency rating based on a complex formula that examines factors including physical condition and how vital a thoroughfare it is, based in part on traffic counts. Bridges that receive a deficiency rating of 50 percent or less may need to be replaced, according to the federal agency's assessment. It specifies no time frame.

A Globe review of the data found that 65 of the structurally deficient bridges in Massachusetts that carry at least 30,000 vehicles a day have a deficiency rating of 50 percent or less.

The National Bridge Inspection Standards, in place since the early 1970s, require agencies that own bridges to perform a visual inspection of each span every two years.

But Cohen said that the Massachusetts Highway Department requires a full hands-on inspection of all bridges every other year and inspects about 420 bridges more often than required because of their poor condition.

At the Tobin Bridge, inspectors conduct an additional in-depth inspection every four years, said Sam Sleiman, director of capital programs and environmental affairs for Massachusetts Port Authority, which owns the bridge that opened in 1950.

But while they may detect immediate hazards, state officials have been far less aggressive about preventing or stemming deteriorating conditions they know to exist, specialists said.

"I'm convinced that we do a good job in avoiding imminent danger," said Steve Poftak, director of research at the Pioneer Institute. "I think we do a less good job when we find out things are degrading."

The Pioneer report last week was the second in recent months to warn of the dangers of delaying maintenance.

In March, a Transportation Finance Commission empaneled by the governor and the Legislature reported that the state's roads and bridges have been chronically underfunded and that MassHighway bridges would need $2.4 billion over 20 years for repair and rehabilitation.

Beginning in 2004, the state drew up a plan to reduce the number of deficient bridges by increasing the annual funding for the program to $200 million.

But doing that diverted money from the road program, according to the commission's report, and the state never spent more than $170 million.

Matt Carroll of the Globe staff and correspondent Claire Cummings contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used. Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com, Levenson at mlevenson@ globe.com.

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