Nearly 10 percent of Illinois bridges have structural issues

By Ryan Keith

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Nearly 10 percent of Illinois bridges have structural problems, records show, and Gov. Rod Blagojevich has ordered a review of the most sensitive ones to ensure the Minnesota bridge disaster isn’t repeated here.

Blagojevich on Thursday ordered immediate inspections of high-volume bridges and those with designs similar to the one that collapsed Wednesday night, killing at least four and injuring scores of others when it dropped into the Mississippi River at rush hour between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

An Associated Press review of federal transportation data shows 2,400 of the state’s nearly 26,000 bridges _ or 9.5 percent _ are classified “structurally deficient.” That puts Illinois better than the national average of about 12 percent.

The Minnesota bridge that collapsed also had been declared “structurally deficient.” But Illinois officials cautioned that the term is a broad category covering many different conditions, from minor issues to major safety problems.

An additional 1,800 Illinois bridges are considered functionally obsolete, meaning they were built to standards that are now out of date.

About two-thirds of the Illinois bridges with structural deficiencies are 50 years old or older. That includes 14 percent, or 350, that are more than 100 years old – the fourth-highest percentage in the nation.

The AP analysis shows counties in eastern and southeastern Illinois have the highest percentage of bridges with structural deficiencies. The group is led by Wabash County, with 25 of its 91 bridges deficient last year, or more than 27 percent.

Ogle County, near Rockford, had the fewest deficient bridges – just five out of 373 bridges, or 1.3 percent.

Blagojevich ordered the Illinois Department of Transportation to conduct visual inspections of key bridges, followed by more high-tech inspections as soon as possible. Illinois has 35 to 40 permanent inspectors statewide. The team is supplemented in the winter with about 35 engineers and technicians from the state’s construction bureau, officials said.

“While we have a rigorous inspection system that ensures the safety of our bridges in Illinois, a tragedy like this demands that we step up our efforts and do everything in our power to guarantee the safety of our bridge network,” the governor said in a statement.

One Illinois resident called the tragedy “horrible” but wasn’t worried a similar collapse on the bridges she uses to commute to St. Louis several times a day. “I wouldn’t say it makes me nervous,” said Diane McCarron, 47, of Belleville.

Another said she has always been nervous on the heavily traveled and aging Poplar Street Bridge and was especially so Thursday after the tragedy.

“It was just bumper-to-bumper,” said Shirley Goodine, of Troy, about her commute home. “I said ‘Please, Lord, get me off this bridge.'”

Illinois lawmakers used the incident to renew a long-simmering political fight.

After taking a moment of silence to remember the bridge collapse victims, several House members said the tragedy should spark a renewed effort by lawmakers to approve a new road construction program.

They’ve been deadlocked over how to pay for billions of dollars in school and road construction projects for four years. Some argued bridges are in growing disrepair in Illinois and legislators should act now to prevent a similar accident.

“Bridges are deficient, roads are deficient,” said Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville. “What is it going to take to put politics and egos aside in this state?”

About 7,800 of the state’s bridges are maintained by the IDOT. An IDOT report indicates more than 12,000 bridges are maintained by townships, with another 4,000 county-run.

The federal data shows about 660 of Illinois’ structurally deficient bridges are state-maintained and more than 1,100 are township bridges. The township bridges are likely to be smaller or not on major roads.

Todd Ahrens, IDOT’s bridge planning engineer, said state-maintained bridges are inspected once every two years, and some with potential safety issues are looked at once a year or more often.

“We’re pretty confident in our inspection program and our schedule for repairs and replacement,” Ahrens said.

He also cautioned that workers here won’t have much to work from until they learn exactly what caused the Minneapolis bridge’s downfall.

An environmental engineering expert said bridges are especially difficult to keep maintained and protected because they’re all constructed uniquely and must endure corrosion and heavy loads.

Bridges in the Chicago area and those over the Mississippi River get the most attention from inspectors because of heavy traffic, added Bob Dodd, head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois.

“The consequences of the failure of a bridge like that on the economics of an area would be huge,” he said.

Associated Press Writers Jim Suhr and David Mercer contributed to this report.