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Many U.S. bridges old, risky and rundown

  • The Washington Monument stands behind the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge which spans the Anacostia River in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. An Associated Press analysis of federal data found 7,795 bridges around the country, including this one, in significant disrepair and at risk of collapse should a single, vital component fail - a combination of red flags that experts say is particularly problematic. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

    The Washington Monument stands behind the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge which spans the Anacostia River in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. An Associated Press analysis of federal data found 7,795 bridges around the country, including this one, in significant disrepair and at risk of collapse should a single, vital component fail - a combination of red flags that experts say is particularly problematic. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

  • Alesia Tisdall stands for a photograph under the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge which spans the Anacostia River in Washington on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. Tisdall, who drove daily over the bridge for 15 years but now crosses it only occasionally, said she found it unnerving that the bridge would "bounce" in the middle as she sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic. "You’d look at the person sitting next to you like, 'Did you feel that bounce?' And they’d be looking back at you like they were thinking the same thing," said Tisdall, 50, a computer systems specialist at the Justice Department. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

    Alesia Tisdall stands for a photograph under the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge which spans the Anacostia River in Washington on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. Tisdall, who drove daily over the bridge for 15 years but now crosses it only occasionally, said she found it unnerving that the bridge would "bounce" in the middle as she sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic. "You’d look at the person sitting next to you like, 'Did you feel that bounce?' And they’d be looking back at you like they were thinking the same thing," said Tisdall, 50, a computer systems specialist at the Justice Department. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

  • A "catcher beam" is seen under the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge which spans the Anacostia River in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. Worried about the possibility of a catastrophic failure, the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation has inserted "catcher beams" underneath the bridge’s main horizontal beams to prevent the bridge from falling into the river should one of the main components give way. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

    A "catcher beam" is seen under the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge which spans the Anacostia River in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. Worried about the possibility of a catastrophic failure, the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation has inserted "catcher beams" underneath the bridge’s main horizontal beams to prevent the bridge from falling into the river should one of the main components give way. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

  • Don Britton casts his fishing rod line under the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge which spans the Anacostia River in Washington on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. The bridge’s steel underpinnings have thinned over time, and there is rust, corrosion and crumbling concrete. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

    Don Britton casts his fishing rod line under the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge which spans the Anacostia River in Washington on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. The bridge’s steel underpinnings have thinned over time, and there is rust, corrosion and crumbling concrete. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

  • ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, SEPT. 16, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - This Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013 photo shows rust on the underside of the Chestnut Street Bridge in Philadelphia. The Chestnut Street Bridge over the Schuylkill River is on a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation list of 577 bridges that both lack backup protection against collapse in case a single, vital component fails and are designated by inspectors as being in need of repair. Pennsylvania is among the states with the most bridges that are in both of those categories, a combination of red flags that experts say is particularly problematic. State officials say unsafe bridges are promptly closed and that a bridge that is in both categories is not necessarily unsafe. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, SEPT. 16, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - This Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013 photo shows rust on the underside of the Chestnut Street Bridge in Philadelphia. The Chestnut Street Bridge over the Schuylkill River is on a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation list of 577 bridges that both lack backup protection against collapse in case a single, vital component fails and are designated by inspectors as being in need of repair. Pennsylvania is among the states with the most bridges that are in both of those categories, a combination of red flags that experts say is particularly problematic. State officials say unsafe bridges are promptly closed and that a bridge that is in both categories is not necessarily unsafe. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

  • ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, SEPT. 16, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - Cyclists ride beneath the Chestnut Street Bridge that spans the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013. The Chestnut Street Bridge is on a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation list of 577 bridges that both lack backup protection against collapse in case a single, vital component fails and are designated by inspectors as being in need of repair. Pennsylvania is among the states with the most bridges that are in both of those categories, a combination of red flags that experts say is particularly problematic. State officials say unsafe bridges are promptly closed and that a bridge that is in both categories is not necessarily unsafe. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, SEPT. 16, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - Cyclists ride beneath the Chestnut Street Bridge that spans the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013. The Chestnut Street Bridge is on a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation list of 577 bridges that both lack backup protection against collapse in case a single, vital component fails and are designated by inspectors as being in need of repair. Pennsylvania is among the states with the most bridges that are in both of those categories, a combination of red flags that experts say is particularly problematic. State officials say unsafe bridges are promptly closed and that a bridge that is in both categories is not necessarily unsafe. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

  • FILE - In this Saturday, Aug. 4, 2007 file photo, vehicles lie in the rubble of the collapsed I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. The bridge had received a "structurally deficient" designation. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the cause of the collapse was an error by the bridge's designers, not the deficiencies found by inspectors. A gusset plate, a fracture critical component of the bridge, was too thin. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

    FILE - In this Saturday, Aug. 4, 2007 file photo, vehicles lie in the rubble of the collapsed I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. The bridge had received a "structurally deficient" designation. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the cause of the collapse was an error by the bridge's designers, not the deficiencies found by inspectors. A gusset plate, a fracture critical component of the bridge, was too thin. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

  • FILE - In this May 27, 2013 photo provided by the Washington Department of Transportation, a crane removes a pickup truck from the wreckage of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon, Wash. Metal fatigue is evident in a steel truss bridge over Interstate 5 in Washington state - south of this similar steel truss that collapsed on May 23, 2013. The biggest difference between the bridge over the Lewis River and the bridge over the Skagit River is that the span still standing has actually been listed in worse condition. State officials hope to replace it in the next 10 to 15 years. (AP Photo/Washington Department of Transportation)

    FILE - In this May 27, 2013 photo provided by the Washington Department of Transportation, a crane removes a pickup truck from the wreckage of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon, Wash. Metal fatigue is evident in a steel truss bridge over Interstate 5 in Washington state - south of this similar steel truss that collapsed on May 23, 2013. The biggest difference between the bridge over the Lewis River and the bridge over the Skagit River is that the span still standing has actually been listed in worse condition. State officials hope to replace it in the next 10 to 15 years. (AP Photo/Washington Department of Transportation)

  • FILE - In this Thursday, May 23, 2013 photo provided by Francisco Rodriguez, Bryce Kenning sits atop his car that fell into the Skagit River after the collapse of the Interstate 5 bridge minutes earlier in Mount Vernon, Wash. The United States has so many bridges in need of repair or replacement, and so little money to do the work, that state and local officials say they are engaged in a kind of transportation triage: They fix the most important and dangerous spans first, nurse along others and, when there’s no hope, shut down the rest.  (AP Photo/Francisco Rodriguez, File)

    FILE - In this Thursday, May 23, 2013 photo provided by Francisco Rodriguez, Bryce Kenning sits atop his car that fell into the Skagit River after the collapse of the Interstate 5 bridge minutes earlier in Mount Vernon, Wash. The United States has so many bridges in need of repair or replacement, and so little money to do the work, that state and local officials say they are engaged in a kind of transportation triage: They fix the most important and dangerous spans first, nurse along others and, when there’s no hope, shut down the rest. (AP Photo/Francisco Rodriguez, File)

  • FILE - This Aug. 20, 2012 file photo shows rust on the Tappan Zee Bridge which spans the Hudson River in New York. An Associated Press review of national bridge records found that there are 65,605 structurally deficient bridges across the country, including the Tappan Zee. The state is spending nearly $5 billion to build a new one. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

    FILE - This Aug. 20, 2012 file photo shows rust on the Tappan Zee Bridge which spans the Hudson River in New York. An Associated Press review of national bridge records found that there are 65,605 structurally deficient bridges across the country, including the Tappan Zee. The state is spending nearly $5 billion to build a new one. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

  • The Brooklyn Bridge stretches in front of the Manhattan skyline in New York, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013. The federal government says more than 2,000 New York state bridges are structurally deficient and badly need repairs. That list includes the Brooklyn Bridge, the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Kosciuszko Bridge. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

    The Brooklyn Bridge stretches in front of the Manhattan skyline in New York, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013. The federal government says more than 2,000 New York state bridges are structurally deficient and badly need repairs. That list includes the Brooklyn Bridge, the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Kosciuszko Bridge. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

  • A pickup truck drives on a bridge over Sagamore Creek in Portsmouth, N.H. on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. An Associated Press analysis of 607,380 bridges in the most recent federal National Bridge Inventory showed that 65,605 were classified as "structurally deficient" and 20,808 as "fracture critical." Of those, 7,795 were both - a combination of red flags that experts say indicate significant disrepair and similar risk of collapse. This is one of several in New Hampshire that fall under both categories (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

    A pickup truck drives on a bridge over Sagamore Creek in Portsmouth, N.H. on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. An Associated Press analysis of 607,380 bridges in the most recent federal National Bridge Inventory showed that 65,605 were classified as "structurally deficient" and 20,808 as "fracture critical." Of those, 7,795 were both - a combination of red flags that experts say indicate significant disrepair and similar risk of collapse. This is one of several in New Hampshire that fall under both categories (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

  • A patch of cracked concrete exposes reinforcing bars on the Main Ave. bridge from the west side of the Cuyahoga River leading into downtown Cleveland on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. The bridge is one of nearly 340 in Ohio that are both "structurally deficient" and "fracture critical", according to to a national review of bridge records. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

    A patch of cracked concrete exposes reinforcing bars on the Main Ave. bridge from the west side of the Cuyahoga River leading into downtown Cleveland on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. The bridge is one of nearly 340 in Ohio that are both "structurally deficient" and "fracture critical", according to to a national review of bridge records. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

  • The sun sets behind the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge over the Anacostia River in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. Safety concerns about the Douglass bridge, which carries more than 70,000 vehicles a day, are far from unique. An Associated Press analysis of federal data found 7,795 bridges around the country in significant disrepair and at risk of collapse should a single, vital component fail - a combination of red flags that experts say is particularly problematic. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

    The sun sets behind the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge over the Anacostia River in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. Safety concerns about the Douglass bridge, which carries more than 70,000 vehicles a day, are far from unique. An Associated Press analysis of federal data found 7,795 bridges around the country in significant disrepair and at risk of collapse should a single, vital component fail - a combination of red flags that experts say is particularly problematic. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

  • Cracked concrete exposes parts of reinforcement bars on the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge which spans the Anacostia River in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. The bridge, which carries more than 70,000 vehicles a day, was designed to last 50 years. It’s now 13 years past its life expectancy. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

    Cracked concrete exposes parts of reinforcement bars on the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge which spans the Anacostia River in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. The bridge, which carries more than 70,000 vehicles a day, was designed to last 50 years. It’s now 13 years past its life expectancy. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

  • The Washington Monument stands behind the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge which spans the Anacostia River in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. An Associated Press analysis of federal data found 7,795 bridges around the country, including this one, in significant disrepair and at risk of collapse should a single, vital component fail - a combination of red flags that experts say is particularly problematic. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
  • Alesia Tisdall stands for a photograph under the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge which spans the Anacostia River in Washington on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. Tisdall, who drove daily over the bridge for 15 years but now crosses it only occasionally, said she found it unnerving that the bridge would "bounce" in the middle as she sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic. "You’d look at the person sitting next to you like, 'Did you feel that bounce?' And they’d be looking back at you like they were thinking the same thing," said Tisdall, 50, a computer systems specialist at the Justice Department. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
  • A "catcher beam" is seen under the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge which spans the Anacostia River in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. Worried about the possibility of a catastrophic failure, the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation has inserted "catcher beams" underneath the bridge’s main horizontal beams to prevent the bridge from falling into the river should one of the main components give way. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
  • Don Britton casts his fishing rod line under the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge which spans the Anacostia River in Washington on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. The bridge’s steel underpinnings have thinned over time, and there is rust, corrosion and crumbling concrete. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
  • ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, SEPT. 16, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - This Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013 photo shows rust on the underside of the Chestnut Street Bridge in Philadelphia. The Chestnut Street Bridge over the Schuylkill River is on a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation list of 577 bridges that both lack backup protection against collapse in case a single, vital component fails and are designated by inspectors as being in need of repair. Pennsylvania is among the states with the most bridges that are in both of those categories, a combination of red flags that experts say is particularly problematic. State officials say unsafe bridges are promptly closed and that a bridge that is in both categories is not necessarily unsafe. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
  • ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, SEPT. 16, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - Cyclists ride beneath the Chestnut Street Bridge that spans the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013. The Chestnut Street Bridge is on a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation list of 577 bridges that both lack backup protection against collapse in case a single, vital component fails and are designated by inspectors as being in need of repair. Pennsylvania is among the states with the most bridges that are in both of those categories, a combination of red flags that experts say is particularly problematic. State officials say unsafe bridges are promptly closed and that a bridge that is in both categories is not necessarily unsafe. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
  • FILE - In this Saturday, Aug. 4, 2007 file photo, vehicles lie in the rubble of the collapsed I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. The bridge had received a "structurally deficient" designation. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the cause of the collapse was an error by the bridge's designers, not the deficiencies found by inspectors. A gusset plate, a fracture critical component of the bridge, was too thin. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)
  • FILE - In this May 27, 2013 photo provided by the Washington Department of Transportation, a crane removes a pickup truck from the wreckage of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon, Wash. Metal fatigue is evident in a steel truss bridge over Interstate 5 in Washington state - south of this similar steel truss that collapsed on May 23, 2013. The biggest difference between the bridge over the Lewis River and the bridge over the Skagit River is that the span still standing has actually been listed in worse condition. State officials hope to replace it in the next 10 to 15 years. (AP Photo/Washington Department of Transportation)
  • FILE - In this Thursday, May 23, 2013 photo provided by Francisco Rodriguez, Bryce Kenning sits atop his car that fell into the Skagit River after the collapse of the Interstate 5 bridge minutes earlier in Mount Vernon, Wash. The United States has so many bridges in need of repair or replacement, and so little money to do the work, that state and local officials say they are engaged in a kind of transportation triage: They fix the most important and dangerous spans first, nurse along others and, when there’s no hope, shut down the rest.  (AP Photo/Francisco Rodriguez, File)
  • FILE - This Aug. 20, 2012 file photo shows rust on the Tappan Zee Bridge which spans the Hudson River in New York. An Associated Press review of national bridge records found that there are 65,605 structurally deficient bridges across the country, including the Tappan Zee. The state is spending nearly $5 billion to build a new one. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
  • The Brooklyn Bridge stretches in front of the Manhattan skyline in New York, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013. The federal government says more than 2,000 New York state bridges are structurally deficient and badly need repairs. That list includes the Brooklyn Bridge, the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Kosciuszko Bridge. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
  • A pickup truck drives on a bridge over Sagamore Creek in Portsmouth, N.H. on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. An Associated Press analysis of 607,380 bridges in the most recent federal National Bridge Inventory showed that 65,605 were classified as "structurally deficient" and 20,808 as "fracture critical." Of those, 7,795 were both - a combination of red flags that experts say indicate significant disrepair and similar risk of collapse. This is one of several in New Hampshire that fall under both categories (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
  • A patch of cracked concrete exposes reinforcing bars on the Main Ave. bridge from the west side of the Cuyahoga River leading into downtown Cleveland on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. The bridge is one of nearly 340 in Ohio that are both "structurally deficient" and "fracture critical", according to to a national review of bridge records. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
  • The sun sets behind the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge over the Anacostia River in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. Safety concerns about the Douglass bridge, which carries more than 70,000 vehicles a day, are far from unique. An Associated Press analysis of federal data found 7,795 bridges around the country in significant disrepair and at risk of collapse should a single, vital component fail - a combination of red flags that experts say is particularly problematic. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
  • Cracked concrete exposes parts of reinforcement bars on the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge which spans the Anacostia River in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. The bridge, which carries more than 70,000 vehicles a day, was designed to last 50 years. It’s now 13 years past its life expectancy. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Motorists coming off the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge into Washington, D.C., are treated to a postcard-perfect view of the U.S. Capitol. The bridge itself, however, is about as ugly as it gets: The steel underpinnings have thinned since the structure was built in 1950, and the span is pocked with rust and crumbling concrete.

District of Columbia officials were so worried about a catastrophic failure that they shored up the horizontal beams to prevent the bridge from falling into the Anacostia River.

And safety concerns about the Douglass bridge, which is used by more than 70,000 vehicles daily, are far from unique.

An Associated Press analysis of 607,380 bridges in the most recent federal National Bridge Inventory showed that 65,605 were classified as “structurally deficient” and 20,808 as “fracture critical.” Of those, 7,795 were both – a combination of red flags that experts say indicate significant disrepair and similar risk of collapse.

A bridge is deemed fracture critical when it doesn’t 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.

Engineers say the bridges are safe. And despite the ominous sounding classifications, officials say that even bridges that are structurally deficient or fracture critical are not about to collapse.

The AP zeroed in on the Douglass bridge and others that fit both criteria – structurally deficient and fracture critical. Together, they carry more than 29 million drivers a day, and many were built more than 60 years ago. Those bridges are located in all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, and include the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, a bridge on the New Jersey highway that leads to the Lincoln Tunnel and the Main Avenue Bridge in Cleveland.

The number of bridges nationwide that are both structurally deficient and fracture critical has been fairly constant for several years, experts say. But both lists fluctuate frequently, especially at the state level, since repairs can move a bridge out of the deficient categories while spans that grow more dilapidated can be put on the lists. There are occasional data-entry errors. There also is considerable lag time between when state transportation officials report data to the federal government and when updates are made to the National Bridge Inventory.

Many fracture critical bridges were erected in the 1950s to 1970s during construction of the interstate highway system because they were relatively cheap and easy to build. Now they have exceeded their designed life expectancy but are still carrying traffic – often more cars and trucks than they were originally expected to handle.

The Interstate 5 bridge in Washington state that collapsed in May was fracture critical.

Cities and states would like to replace the aging and vulnerable bridges, but few have the money; nationally, it is a multibillion-dollar problem. As a result, highway engineers are juggling repairs and retrofits in an effort to stay ahead of the deterioration.

There are thousands of inspectors across the country “in the field every day to determine the safety of the nation’s bridges,” Victor Mendez, head of the Federal Highway Administration, said in a statement. “If a bridge is found to be unsafe, immediate action is taken.”

At the same time, all that is required to cause a fracture critical bridge to collapse is a single unanticipated event that damages a critical portion of the structure.

“It’s kind of like trying to predict where an earthquake is going to hit or where a tornado is going to touch down,” said Kelley Rehm, bridges program manager for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Signs of age are clear. The Douglass bridge, also known as the South Capitol Street Bridge, was designed to last 50 years. It’s now 13 years past that.

The district’s transportation department has inserted so-called catcher beams underneath the bridge’s main horizontal beams to keep the bridge from falling into the river, should a main component fail.

Alesia Tisdall, who drove over the bridge every day for 15 years but now crosses it only occasionally, said she found its “bounce” unnerving.

“You’d look at the person sitting next to you like, ‘Did you feel that bounce?’ And they’d be looking back at you like they were thinking the same thing,” said Tisdall, a computer systems specialist at the Justice Department.

Peter Vanderzee, CEO of Lifespan Technologies of Alpharetta, Ga., which uses special sensors to monitor bridges for stress, said steel fatigue is a problem in the older bridges.

“Bridges aren’t built to last forever,” he said. He compared steel bridges to a paper clip that’s opened and bent back and forth until it breaks.

“That’s a fatigue failure,” he said. “In a bridge system, it may take millions of cycles before it breaks. But many of these bridges have seen millions of cycles of loading and unloading.”

Legacy Comments1

Must be Bush's fault - democrats tell me that answer for every problem.

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