Feds reduce repair money, but state says bridges are still safe

By ERIK SCHELZIG Associated Press Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The federal government cut Tennessee's bridge repair and replacement fund by $12 million this year, but state officials still believe they have enough money to keep bridges safe.

Paul Degges, chief engineer at the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said Thursday that the state spends about $50 million a year on bridge repair and replacement, but that some repair projects were delayed by federal cuts.

"We've actually had projects set up to do, and those projects will need to be delayed," he said."

None of those projects are critical, he said, and the department would shift money from other areas if any urgent work was needed.

State transportation officials said they remain confident in their bridge inspection procedures, but they are waiting to learn the cause of a fatal bridge collapse in Minneapolis to determine whether they need to make changes.

Degges said the Minneapolis collapse on Wednesday could lead to changes in how bridges are inspected. That's what happened in 1989 when a large bridge segment in West Tennessee collapsed and killed eight people.

"That failure became the case model for a national change in how bridge inspections were done, and started us looking at underwater bridge inspections," he said.

In the Tennessee collapse, an 84-foot section of a bridge fell into the rain-swollen Hatchie River because rushing water had weakened bridge supports. Four passenger cars and a tractor-trailer rug plunged into the river, killing all occupants.

A federal investigation found that the river channel had moved 83 feet since the bridge was built in 1936, and that the bridge likely failed as a result of the deterioration of timber piles that were originally buried and not designed to be in water.

After the Hatchie River collapse, the state started using divers every five years to check for underwater problems.

Transportation Commissioner Jerry Nicely said the state is doing all it can to ensure bridges are safe. "

In the case that we need to do anything differently, we'll certainly look at it," he said. "You always look for improvements, but of course we don't really know what's happened (in Minneapolis) yet and we need to get all the facts."

Kevin Smith, a 41-year-old contractor walking across Nashville's Woodland Street Bridge, wasn't convinced about the safety of any bridge.

"Show me a bridge in the United States that can't collapse," he said. "It can happen anywhere in the world."

The average bridge in Tennessee is 115 feet long and 38 years old.

Degges said 17 bridge inspection teams monitor each of Tennessee's nearly 20,000 bridges every two years. None has shown any indication of critical problems, but 3,840 bridges, or nearly 20 percent, have been classified as having either structural or functional issues that need to be addressed.

Degges said bridges deemed "structurally deficient" - 333 bridges maintained by the state and 869 bridges operated by local governments - need work on specific areas, but that they are not considered unsafe.

The bridge in Minneapolis was also labeled "structurally deficient."

The remaining 2,581 bridges are considered "functionally obsolete," meaning they either don't meet current bridge-building standards or have a traffic burden that is too large for what they were designed for.

State inspectors try to spot bridge problems early because it usually takes more than a year to get issue contracts for repair work, Degges said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)