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WASHINGTON - Nearly three years after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, 25 percent of the country's bridges remain "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete," according to testimony at a House Transportation Subcommittee hearing Wednesday.
"It's only a matter of time before it's another one in the river," said Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat on the committee.
"Are we doing enough to have an honest discussion with the American public of what it's going to cost to replace and repair and keep our bridges up to where they need to be for safety?"
The hearing examined funding levels and bridge improvements, as well as the frequency and adequacy of inspections of the nation's highway bridges.
The number of deficient bridges has declined by nearly 12 percent since 1998, but about 150,000 bridges -- nearly one in four -- still are considered deficient, according to the latest data from the Federal Highway Administration.
While the overall drop can be attributed to improvements in local and rural bridges, according to the Government Accountability Office, the number of deficient bridges in urban areas has increased 11 percent since 1998.
In Minnesota, 12 percent of 13,131 bridges are considered structurally deficit or functionally obsolete. In 1998, 18 percent of 12,614 state bridges were in those categories.
Terming bridges structurally deficient or functionally obsolete means they are substandard -- not that they are in danger of collapsing or failing.
The problem stems from skyrocketing construction costs, increased highway traffic and an aging system of bridges built with the interstate system, Malcolm Kerley, the Virginia Department of Transportation's chief engineer, said Wednesday. "We're facing a perfect storm regarding our bridges," he said.
Rep. Jim Oberstar, chairman of the committee, said states are not dedicating enough money to addressing bridge problems.
"The current law gives states the authority to transfer up to 50 percent of their bridge funds to other purposes," Oberstar said. "And they've done it. And then they turn around and complain they don't have enough money for bridge replacement."
Reiterating the need for new inspection technology, Oberstar recalled a hearing from 1987 when a professor testified that dragging chains over bridges to listen for structural deficiencies was technology from "the stone age."
"We're still in the stone age," Oberstar said, as the method is still used. "That's unacceptable."
Walz cited a bridge over the Mississippi River in Winona that was closed for 10 days in 2008 and is scheduled to be replaced in 2014, saying the state doesn't know yet how it will cover the cost.
"We actually don't have a crisis today," Walz said, "but if we go forward without addressing it, we will have a crisis in the future."
Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723