Bridges On The Brink (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Bridging the Long, Hot Summer Months

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:22:24
Welcome back to "Metro Connection," I'm Rebecca Sheir. And as we continue crossing and spanning bridges, we turn now to the nearly 70,000 bridges throughout the country that, in short, are falling apart. The D.C. based coalition, Transportation for America, recently ranked the 50 states and the District of Columbia by the disrepair of their bridges.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:22:46
Washington came in 21st with more than 12 percent of its bridges crying out for some major fix-its, especially the super busy and semi-crumbling Key Bridge and 14th Street Bridge. Maryland and Virginia came in 31st and 40th respectively. And while they're getting better rankings than many other states, not all their bridges get a thumbs up from James Corless, the head of Transportation for America.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:23:10
Okay. He and I recently drove up to a Virginia Bridge in need of some pretty serious repairs. You've no doubt, seen it. It's the one right near the Pentagon where Washington Boulevard crosses over the Jefferson Davis Highway. And it's not too far from National Airport so you have plenty of planes roaring overhead. Anyhow, Corless says he's worried about the state of this bridge, though he emphasizes, of course, that he's not really a civil engineer.

MR. JAMES CORLESS

13:23:37
But I actually love listening to the civil engineers talk about bridges. It's like a family member who's in a nursing home or may be if we don't actually pay some attention. But this bridge here, you can kind of tell even as we're walking up to it, just the -- it's showing its age.

SHEIR

13:23:53
Since this is radio, can you kind of describe what it looks like?

CORLESS

13:23:57
Sure. The bridge was built in 1942, so there's stone foundations with a, you know, an iron overpass. You can really see the metal, the rust, the concrete...

SHEIR

13:24:10
It's kind of corroding, I mean.

CORLESS

13:24:11
Yeah. At some point, it must've looked beautiful. But like I always tell me kids, when we walk by those old houses that are falling apart, it kind of looks like a ghost house. It looks abandoned except there's 55,000 cars everyday that cross the top and about the same number underneath. Let's just say, this bridge needs an extreme makeover, at the least. And there is a pretty good federal bridge inventory and program they have done because we've had pretty significant high profile bridge collapses in the past.

CORLESS

13:24:37
And there's a zero to 10 rating on all bridges. If your rating falls below a five, you are deemed what's called, structurally deficient. And, now, all three categories in this bridge, for ratings, which is super structure, substructure and deck surface, all below the rating they should get. So this bridge is structurally deferent in all three categories. But it doesn't mean it's unsafe. As long as they catch it in time, if a bridge is unsafe, it will be closed.

CORLESS

13:25:03
I mean, the departments of transportation are very good about that. But, frankly, they haven't had enough funding and sometimes politics gets in the way about paying enough attention and investing enough resources and actually fixing what are, increasingly, the 600,000 bridges in the U.S. that are beyond their mid-life crisis.

SHEIR

13:25:21
The average age of an American bridge, your group says, is 42 years. Most bridges have a lifespan of 50. So when a bridge is deemed structurally deficient, how close are we to therefore being deemed unusable?

CORLESS

13:25:34
If they're deemed structurally deficient, in any way, they go on an annual check-up. But part of the problem, I think, we have is that these are often visual inspections. So even though we've got a good inspection program, I know there's a lot of concern about how this visual inspections, how rigorous they are and you can easily get to a point where you're closing a bridge pretty quickly.

CORLESS

13:25:56
I was looking at the data of the roughly 244 bridges in the District, you said that 30 were structurally deficient, which means more than 12 percent of D.C.'s bridges are in need of repair. That might not seem like a big number to some people, 12 percent.

CORLESS

13:26:11
Twelve percent is a pretty big number. You also have to understand that, if we were really smart about how we invest in crumbling infrastructure, it's not unlike you notice a little leak in your roof and you think, "Maybe I'll just wait till that gets really bad." If you wait too long on a bridge or a road or anything, it's going to cost you five times as much. And there's a transportation bill, languishing in the halls of Congress, federal transportation authorization bill.

CORLESS

13:26:35
We need everybody's support to educated their members of Congress whether it's Virginia, D.C. or Maryland. If we want well maintained and efficient infrastructure and a better transportation.

SHEIR

13:26:45
So that we can build a bridge to the future.

CORLESS

13:26:49
So that we can build a bridge to somewhere.

SHEIR

13:26:53
James Corless directs Transportation for America, a national coalition of business, environmental and transportation groups. To check out a interactive map of the regions and nations most structurally deficient bridges, visit our website metroconnection.org.
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