Officials downplay rise in troubled bridges

1,827 rated ‘structurally deficient’

Louisiana is among a handful of states that showed an increase in its number of troubled bridges in recent years, but officials of the state Department of Transportation and Development decline to say where they are located.

DOTD officials rejected a June 13 public records request from The Advocate for a list of the 1,827 bridges — 14 percent of the total statewide — rated as “structurally deficient” under a scoring system created by the federal government.

They said they are prohibited from doing so because the state’s bridge inspection program is mostly financed with federal dollars and is kept off limits by federal law.

But Eric Kalivoda, deputy secretary for DOTD, emphasized that, despite the sobering term applied to the bridges, they are not in jeopardy of collapse.

“It does not mean unsafe,” Kalivoda said of bridges categorized as “structurally deficient.”

“This is just a technical term that is used to describe a bridge where some of the elements have deteriorated or they have been damaged,” he said.

Louisiana ranks third in the nation in terms of deck space — the total area of the surfaces of its bridges — behind only California and Texas.

And the condition of its bridges, many half a century old and older, has been criticized for years, including in a 2012 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

That review gave the state’s bridges a rating of “D-plus.”

In 2007 a Washington research group called TRIP, also citing federal statistics, said that nearly one in three bridges in Louisiana was in poor condition or out of date.

The issue resurfaced last month when Governing magazine, citing federal figures, listed Louisiana as one of just nine states nationwide where the list of bridges listed as structurally deficient rose from 2007 to 2013.

The survey shows that, of 13,050 bridges statewide, 1,827 are listed as structurally deficient. That is 14 percent of the total statewide, compared with 10.5 percent nationally.

The latest state tally rose by 2.2 percent — 39 bridges — since 2007.

State officials said that, generally speaking, most of the bridges that carry the label are on less traveled routes, not high-profile structures like the new Mississippi River Bridge at Baton Rouge.

“Most of them are going to be smaller, shorter bridges that are in more rural areas,” said David Miller, chief bridge maintenance engineer for DOTD.

Kalivoda said state officials act when problems surface. “If the deterioration gets severe enough, we will load-post the bridge if it can’t carry the legal load, then we will post it down lower and lower if need be,” he said.

“If it is unsafe we will close it,” Kalivoda said. “We do that on a regular basis, much to the chagrin of people.”

More than 2,000 state, parish and municipal bridges include load postings (limits on maximum safe loads) amid structural deficiencies.

Bridges are inspected at least once every two years, and more often if problems surface, officials said.

The review focuses on three components: the deck, the superstructure that supports the deck and the substructure that goes into the ground, Miller said.

Each component gets a rating of 0 to 9, with 0 the worst and 9 the best. If any component scores 4 or lower, the bridge is classified as structurally deficient.

Miller compared the rating to a car with a damaged tailpipe.

“It is still drivable, still safe,” he said.

Miller said the number of bridges in Louisiana rated as structurally deficient has risen since 2007 because of the age of the structures.

“There are a lot more bridges that are becoming in need of repair,” he said.

Ken Perret, president of the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association, said bridge problems are part of a larger issue — lack of money for a wide range of transportation needs.

“The big issue is funding,” said Perret, a former top official at DOTD.

Perret noted that the state transportation trust fund, which is supposed to finance road and bridge improvements, also provides $60 million per year to help support State Police.

That is money that could be used for bridge repairs, he said. “The pie is too small,” he said.

Aside from bridges rated as structurally deficient, another 1,963 — 15 percent of the total — are listed as functionally obsolete, meaning the bridge no longer meets modern safety design standards.

The national rate is 13.9 percent, according to federal figures.

The state has a $12 billion backlog of road and bridge needs. However, repeated efforts to boost funding have died in the Legislature, and Gov. Bobby Jindal has long opposed any tax hikes.

Perret said the problem is worsened by the fact that the fund that finances roads and bridges is stagnant while costs are rising.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.