MDOT engineer says bridge report overstates Maine’s problem

A crumbling support of the I-395 bridge that spans over the discontinued section of Webster Avenue in Bangor.
A crumbling support of the I-395 bridge that spans over the discontinued section of Webster Avenue in Bangor.
Posted April 08, 2011, at 8:14 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Maine transportation officials downplayed the findings Friday of a recent report that concludes Maine has more bridges in need of repair or replacement than the national average.

The report, compiled by a national group called Transportation for America, states that 15.4 percent of Maine’s 2,400 bridges are deficient, compared to the national average of 11.5 percent. Those numbers place Maine with the 12th-worst bridge maintenance backlog in the nation.

Maria Fuentes of the Maine Better Transportation Association, which issued a press release Friday highlighting the report, said the numbers should come as no surprise to experts in the transportation sector. But Maine Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Kenneth Sweeney said the report is based on two-year-old information.

“It would be significantly different if they’d used current information,” said Sweeney. “It’s based on 2008 data, and we’ve invested quite a lot in bridges since that time.”

Sweeney also took issue with the report’s use of the words “structurally deficient.”

“That doesn’t mean that a bridge is unsafe or shouldn’t be used,” said Sweeney. “It just means there are certain elements of the bridge that need to be fixed.”

Sweeney said Maine is dedicating more money to bridges now — about $110 million annually — than it has in many years. That number comes from the usual funding level of up to $60 million a year in Highway Fund money plus the proceeds from a four-year bond program called TransCap that was enacted in 2008 under Gov. John Baldacci.

“We’ve addressed well over 150 bridges in that time,” said Sweeney. “We’re doing a lot of bridge replacements, but also a lot of preservation and rehabilitation work. That’s a way to really stretch those dollars.”

Fuentes said the TransCap program is a short-term fix that will leave Maine in the lurch when it expires two years from now.

“We need to be thinking more long term,” she said, adding that her organization supports borrowing to support transportation projects. “The average Mainer already spends $250 in extra vehicle maintenance costs due to bad roads and bridges. Every time we post or close a bridge, Maine drivers pay even more in increased fuel costs and emergency response times.”

The report singles out two bridges in each state that are especially deficient. In Maine, they are the Presumpscot River Bridge on Cumberland Street in Falmouth and a Route 2 bridge that crosses the Wild River in Oxford County.

Sweeney said that he didn’t have data about the Oxford County bridge at hand, but that the one in Falmouth illustrates the problem with dated data.

“If you stand on that bridge, you’d see another bridge right next to it that we’re rebuilding,” he said. “It will be open to traffic this fall, and then we’ll remove the existing bridge.”

Sweeney said he didn’t have a number easily at hand of how many bridges the MDOT considers deficient.

Sen. Ronald Collins, R-Wells, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, could not be reached Friday for comment. Former Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, who co-chaired the Transportation Committee prior to Collins, said funding for roads and bridges has been a perennial problem for Maine and many other states. He said the problem concerning bridges got some of the attention it deserved after a major bridge collapsed in Minnesota in 2007. That event spurred at least two legislative studies and eventually the TransCap program.

“That was a good thing,” said Damon, who was termed limited out of office last year. “From what I know of our transportation needs, it’s going to take a considerable investment and an ongoing effort to get our roads and bridges to a point where we cannot only be safe on them, but proud of them as well. It’s a tremendous responsibility.”

The report, called “The Fix We’re In For: The State of the Nation’s Bridges,” identifies 370 bridges in Maine that are “deficient.” Those bridges handle about 1.1 million vehicles per day.

On a wider scale, the report states that approximately 70,000 of the United States’ 600,000 bridges are deficient, which works out to about 11.5 percent. The worst areas in the country are in the Midwest, though Pennsylvania and Rhode Island rank poorly among states in the Northeast. Pennsylvania has the highest percentage of deficient bridges at 26.5 percent while Nevada ranks best with 2.2 percent, according to the report.

Asked if he thought the report causes a false alarm by using outdated figures, Sweeney said he doesn’t take too much issue with it.

“Bridge condition and safety are important issues,” he said. “[The release of this report] allows us to respond and lay out what the facts are. That’s part of what we do.”

Link to the report:

http://t4america.org/resources/bridges/states/

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