Pauls Valley, OK, Pauls Valley Democrat

September 16, 2013

Okla. bridges in bad shape

By Sean Murphy
The Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — Despite increases in transportation funding and an aggressive program to improve the state’s roads and bridges, hundreds of Oklahoma bridges are outdated and in poor condition, according to a recent analysis of federal bridge data.

An Associated Press analysis of bridges in the National Bridge Inventory, which are subject to national standards, shows Oklahoma had 414 bridges across the state both structurally deficient and fracture critical. Citing a lag time between federal data and more recent state figures, Oklahoma transportation officials say that number has since been reduced to 348 as a result of increased funding for programs to fix and replace both state and county bridges, but they acknowledge more work needs to be done.

“A lot of people don’t realize that we have more bridges than a lot of other states,” said Terry Angier, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, who noted Oklahoma has more than 23,000 bridges statewide. “Then you combine that with 40 years of underfunding the transportation system in Oklahoma.

“But we’ve been very aggressive talking about this for the last 10 years ... putting more money into the program.”

The Associated Press analyzed data involving 607,380 bridges in the National Bridge Inventory. On a national basis, there are 65,605 structurally deficient bridges and 20,808 fracture critical bridges, according to the most recently available federal government data.

A bridge is deemed “fracture critical” when it does not have redundant protections and is at risk of collapse if a single, vital component fails. A bridge is “structurally deficient” when it is in need of rehabilitation or replacement because at least one major component of the span has advanced deterioration or other problems that lead inspectors to deem its condition “poor” or worse.

Some 7,795 bridges nationwide fall into both categories — a combination of red flags that experts say is particularly problematic.

The Oklahoma Legislature in 2005 diverted an increasing portion of the state’s income tax to fund road and bridge repairs, and Gov. Mary Fallin last year signed a bill to increase the share of motor vehicle excise taxes, licenses and fees that are used to fund county improvements to roads and bridges.

Nearly 300 of Oklahoma’s bridges that are both fracture critical and structurally deficient are county bridges, not part of the state highway system. Many are in smaller, rural counties with numerous creeks and waterways and without the funds to quickly replace outdated bridges.

Ray Vaughn, a commissioner in the state’s most populous county, Oklahoma County, said there were three fracture-critical bridges in his district when he took office in 2007. All have been replaced as part of an emphasis on replacing those designs following the 2007 collapse of an interstate bridge in Minneapolis that killed 13 people, he said.

“Because of the attention focused on that design as a result of the Minnesota bridge collapse, there was a real effort made to get rid of the fracture critical bridges as a priority,” Vaughn said.

While fracture-critical bridges have been a priority, structurally deficient bridges also have been targeted for replacement or repair. According to ODOT, the number of structurally deficient county bridges dropped from 4,636 in 2011 to 3,552 in 2012.

Bill Frank Lance, a commissioner in Murray County in south-central Oklahoma for 27 years, said the effort over the last decade to replace and repair outdated county bridges has dramatically picked up momentum.

“It hasn’t been something that occurred overnight,” Lance said. “It took a long time to get these funding mechanisms set to where they are today.”