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Utah's own bridge peril: Nearly 200 spans need repair, replacement or have structural worries
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

With nearly 100 Utah bridges already deemed in need of crucial repairs or replacement and another 100 identified as having structural issues, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. on Thursday joined governors around the nation in calls for a comprehensive review of bridge safety.

Huntsman's directive comes a day after a freeway bridge in Minneapolis collapsed and fell into the Mississippi River. The review of Utah's 200 high-priority bridges will examine structural integrity and will begin immediately, said John Njord, Utah Department of Transportation executive director.

David Eixenberger, UDOT's bridge operations engineer, said Utah's bridges are in relatively good condition - only about 9 percent of the state's 2,700 bridges need immediate attention. That places Utah seventh nationally in terms of overall bridge health, according to Federal Highway Administration data.

Minnesota, however, was just a few steps behind at number 12, the figures show.

All of the nation's bridges are inspected every other year according to federal law, but those in the "structurally deficient" category - which doesn't necessarily mean they are unsafe or in danger of collapse, but does mean they need to be repaired or replaced as soon as possible - are more closely monitored, Eixenberger said.

A Federal Highway Administration assessment says repairs and replacement for Utah's 239 structurally troubled bridges would cost at least $156 million. The figure includes bridges classified as "functionally obsolete," those bridges too narrow or otherwise inadequate to handle today's motorist travel and growing volume of heavy truck traffic.

Utah transportation expert Tom Warne was in Minneapolis on Thursday to help determine why the Interstate 35 West bridge collapsed. While the cause remains unknown, the disaster shows that infrastructure in the United States needs more attention, he said.

The problem, of course, is money.

Maintenance and repair for the 1,800 bridges on state routes, interstates and U.S. highways in Utah - 95 of which are structurally deficient - cost the state about $60 million just to maintain status quo, Eixenberger said.

The other 144 bridges most in need of fixing are among the 900 bridges under city, town or county jurisdiction.

While the most expensive bridge projects are along the Wasatch Front, rural counties claim all but five of the state's top 20 most deficient bridges, according to the federal data.

Two years ago, long-standing problems with crumbling bridges on Interstate 80 resulted in a basketball-size chunk of concrete dropping from the deck of a bridge near Highland Drive. The debris didn't hurt anyone, but left a hole in the bridge deck and forced immediate repairs. That bridge was built in 1965.

So were the other bridges on that stretch of I-80, and they have reached the end of their lives. Freeze-and-thaw cycles that allow salt to creep into the concrete and steel are to blame.

"In our environment we tend to get 40-50 years out of a bridge," Eixenberger said. Other parts of the country with milder climates have deficient bridges that average 60 to 70 years of age.

UDOT has repaired I-80 bridges with carbon-fiber wraps and plans to spend at least $40 million to overhaul the freeway and replace its bridges between State Street and Highland Drive next year.

The I-15 NOW project in Weber County will include replacement of 26 bridges. The Interstate 15 reconstruction through Salt Lake County replaced 120 bridges and added 24.

Warne said most of the nation's bridges were built along with the interstates between 1957 and 1970 for lower traffic volumes and lighter trucks.

Even new bridges can show signs of strain. Just two to four years after the Salt Lake County I-15 project was completed in the run-up to the 2002 Winter Olympics, salty water seeping into bridge decks left networks of salt-encrusted cracks visible from the freeway below.

University of Utah civil engineering department chairman Lawrence Reaveley, hired to study the cracked bridges, concluded in a 2004 study of 71 bridges that the cracks were a trade-off for the speed UDOT demanded of its contractors.

On Thursday, Reaveley said the bridges would have shown less cracking if more time had been taken with construction. But the state saved millions of dollars by using technology that allowed a shorter construction period. Since then, UDOT has used membrane overlays on the bridges to seal the cracks, a repair that lasts about 10 years, he said.

Improving the nation's troubled bridges will be a costly venture, according to data by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The group estimates it will cost $9.4 billion a year for 20 years to eliminate all deficiencies in the nation's 590,750 bridges.

But Congress included just $5 billion for bridges in its most recent transportation bill. And the Highway Trust Fund, which captures federal fuel taxes, will be empty by 2009.

"Almost every solution now requires raising taxes. That really is the crux of the problem," Warne said. "Utah has raised a lot of money for transportation recently, to the credit of our elected officials."

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* Tribune reporter THOMAS BURR and MediaNews reporter GORDON TROWBRIDGE contributed to this story.

Safety probe

The state fares relatively well nationwide, but Huntsman orders a swift review of 200 structures under suspicion

200 structures under suspicion statewide; after Minneapolis tragedy, Huntsman orders a review of their condition

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