Bridge bill hikes funds, tightens inspections

WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday approved an ambitious bridge safety bill that could help protect some of the 3,140 structurally deficient bridges in California, a grim-sounding roster that includes hundreds in the Central Valley.

Spurred by the collapse last year of a heavily traveled bridge in Minneapolis, lawmakers are offering more safety money and stricter inspection rules. Potentially, considerable resources could reach California.

For example, several bridges near Lathrop, Vernalis, Merced and Los Banos have been deemed structurally deficient.

"Our bridges, roadways and transportation systems are the backbone of our nation and economy," said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento. "Improving the safety standards for our bridges delivers on our responsibility to preserve public safety."

The Bush administration opposes the bill as extravagant.

Although President Bush's clout on Capitol Hill is vastly diminished, and the House approved the measure by an overwhelming 376-55 margin, more changes are likely.

"This bill practically eliminates any flexibility a state has to transfer funding from the bridge program to other federal highway programs when there are urgent needs to do so," cautioned Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn. "We are concerned about that."

The $5.5 billion bill adds $1 billion to what Congress had planned to spend next year on bridge safety. It also calls for more systematic inspections of structurally deficient bridges, such as the roughly two dozen dotting Interstate 5 between Tracy and Bakersfield.

The bridges judged structurally deficient may not pose an immediate danger; in fact, officials from the California Department of Transportation stress the bridges' overall safety. Some are listed because they need maintenance or constant monitoring. Still, these are the bridges deemed potentially vulnerable.

"We always like more money," Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said, adding that "we are currently reviewing the bill."

Hundreds in state deficient

The National Bridge Inventory shows that nearly 300 Central Valley bridges on national highway system roads between Chico and Bakersfield are judged structurally deficient. Many are clustered along sections of I-5, I-80 east of Sacramento and Highway 99.

A state-produced map shows several weaker crossings on the I-5 stretch between Interstates 205 and 580, west of Modesto and east of Tracy; two on Highway 120 near Lathrop; three on Highway 99 between Stockton and Manteca; four on Highway 99 near Merced; one on Highway 120 over Don Pedro Reservoir; and a few near Los Banos, including on Highway 152 over San Luis Reservoir.

Highway 99 is part of the 162,000-mile national highway system, although it is not an interstate. Eventually, valley lawmakers want the highway designated as an interstate so it can become eligible for additional funding.

Statewide, 27 percent of California's 7,467 national highway system bridges are judged structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. A functionally obsolete bridge may not be able to handle modern-day traffic loads.

On roads not part of the national highway system, 29 percent of California's remaining 16,717 bridges are considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

Thirteen people died and upward of 100 were injured in August when Minnesota's I-35 West bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River. Subsequent investigation revealed that the 40-year-old bridge was rated as structurally deficient, though the cause of the collapse is under official investigation.

"Whenever a tragedy befalls us, it does not do proper justice and honor to the victims of that tragedy to not learn from it and to do better in the future," Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said.

All bridges will have to be inspected at least once every two years, and structurally deficient bridges will need inspection every year. California officials note they already inspect every bridge under their control every two years.

The Senate has not passed its own version of the bridge safety bill.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.