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N.H. officials say bridges are safe

CONCORD, N.H. --Drivers should not be afraid to cross New Hampshire's nearly 4,000 bridges -- 500 of them flagged due to safety concerns -- because of a bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Transportation Commissioner Charles O'Leary said Thursday.

"They are safe," O'Leary told reporters.

O'Leary said New Hampshire's bridges are inspected at least once every two years. The state uses a so-called "red list" to mark bridges needing more repairs and those bridges are inspected more frequently.

O'Leary said bridges on the list are safe as long as drivers obey posted load limits.

O'Leary said the state does not plan to do extra inspections because of the Minnesota tragedy. When the cause of the bridge collapse is known, inspectors will know what to look for in bridges in New Hampshire and around the nation, he said.

O'Leary said inspection practices change as a result of tragedies. For instance, he said inspectors now look for places where water carrying fine particles of sand have scoured sections of bridges and weakened them. He said inspectors didn't do that until that was found to be the cause of a bridge collapse elsewhere in the country.

The eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge, a major Minneapolis artery, was in the midst of repairs when the bridge buckled during the evening rush hour Wednesday. Dozens of cars plummeted more than 60 feet into the Mississippi River, some falling on top one of another.

The bridge was crowded with traffic, and a train had been passing beneath the roadway at the time it fell.

Divers checked submerged vehicles Thursday, checking for bodies. At least four people were known to have died in the collapse. Perhaps 20 to 30 people were unaccounted for.

O'Leary told reporters his agency felt a need to reassure the public that driving across New Hampshire's bridges is safe.

The state owns 2,115 bridges, of which 137 or 6.5 percent are on the red list. Municipalities own 1,630 bridges, of which 363 or 22 percent are on the red list.

Being on the red list does not mean a bridge is unsafe, O'Leary said.

David Powelson of the Bureau of Bridge Design said state inspectors use the list as an inspection tool and watch list.

"We think their condition is likely to change more quickly," he said.

Jeff Brillhart, assistant transportation commissioner and chief engineer, said some bridges, such as covered bridges, will always be on the list.

"It's unrealistic to have everything in A-1 condition," said Brillhart.

Powelson said the state inspects municipal bridges, but cannot tell towns what to do about deficiencies inspectors find. Closing unsafe local bridges is up to local officials, he said.

"What they do with the information is up to them," he said.

O'Leary said lawmakers doubled the bridge aid to communities in the latest budget from $8 million annually to $16 million to help pay for more repairs.

O'Leary said the state's top priorities are repairing the 86-year-old Memorial Bridge connecting Portsmouth with Kittery, Maine, and Interstate 93 bridges in Windham, Salem and Londonderry. Work on some of those projects has already started.

O'Leary said the state has asked the Navy to help with repairs on the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, which carries U.S. Route 1 bypass traffic over the Piscataqua River between Portsmouth and Kittery. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard relies on a railroad section to transport nuclear cores used in submarine overhaul, said O'Leary.

The bridge is owned by an interstate authority that doesn't have enough money to fix it, he said.

Last fall, a major failure of an underwater electrical cable forced officials to raise the bridge and leave it temporarily in the up position so boats weren't blocked from traveling up and down the river. The state doesn't want to lose use of the bridge again just as it begins repairs on the Memorial Bridge, said O'Leary.

O'Leary has been telling public officials the state's 10-year highway construction plan will take 35 years. He proposed cutting $1 billion in projects so the plan could be finished in 22 years. He also said the state needs more money, perhaps by raising tolls or gas taxes.

Thursday, O'Leary said tolls had not been raised since 1989 and gas taxes since 1992. He said the state can't expect to have enough money to fix roads and bridges without raising prices over time.

"Why do we think we can have the same purchasing power forever," he said.


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