Analyzing 2017 federal data, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association found that 54,259 of the nation's 612,677 bridges are rated “structurally deficient,” and one in three bridges have identified repair needs. At the current rate of repair, the association estimates, fixing all of them would take 37 years. It's a timely report, becoming public within days of the Trump administration's much-anticipated $1.5 trillion infrastructure-repair proposal.
The report lists Indiana as the state with the 14th-highest number of spans in need of serious work – 1,435 of the state's 19,291 bridges – and two Allen County bridges are included in the association's list of the 25 most-traveled structurally deficient bridges in the state.
But the term “structurally deficient” isn't necessarily as scary as it sounds. Neither the Bluffton Road bridge over the Saint Marys River nor an I-69 bridge over the Graham McCullough Ditch poses a hazard for drivers, according to local and state officials.
“The I-69 bridge is absolutely safe for traffic – if INDOT had any questions about the safety of the bridge, it would be closed to travelers as safety is our utmost priority,” wrote Nichole Hacha-Thomas, Fort Wayne district media relations director for the Indiana Department of Transportation, which is responsible for interstate and state highway maintenance. “The bridge ... is located just south of U.S. 24 and comes out of Eagle Marsh Nature Preserve,” she said in an email last week. “The bridge is scheduled for rehabilitation and joint replacement in 2019. The substructure of the bridge was rehabbed in 2017.”
“A deficient rating doesn't mean that a bridge is unsafe,” Hacha-Thomas wrote. “It simply means that at least one structural component (deck, superstructure, substructure) is identified to be in need of repair or rehabilitation.”
The Bluffton Road bridge also has some deficiencies, Daniel B. Allen of the Allen County Highway Department, said last week. But “it's certainly structurally sound enough to carry the traffic that's using it.” Following up in an email, Allen said the bridge “does not have any current vehicle restrictions,” and might not be one of the most-traveled bridges with deficiencies because the number of cars it carries per day – 23,300 – was incorrectly listed in a federal report as 30,100.
A 2017 report prepared for the county by engineering consultants recommended preservation work on the Bluffton Road bridge and suggested it be done last year. Now, maintenance on the Bluffton Road bridge is the city's responsibility instead of the county's. Last year, New Haven and Fort Wayne decided to use their shares of wheel tax and license-plate surtax revenue to repair their own bridges, rather than paying the county to do that work.
It may be a while before maintenance work on the span begins. City Public Works Department spokesperson Frank Suarez said officials are meeting this month and next to decide which projects to pursue this year. All bridges within the city will be reinspected in 2018, Suarez added.
It's too early to tell whether Fort Wayne's and New Haven's decisions to go their own way on bridge repair will be cheaper and more efficient than allowing the county to handle maintenance. But both Suarez and County Commissioner Nelson Peters emphasized that bridges with dangerous flaws are dealt with quickly. Suarez noted that some local bridges are under load restrictions and said repair work will be put out for bid soon on the Edsall Avenue Bridge over the Norfolk Southern railroad in southeast Fort Wayne. That bridge has been closed since July 2015, after its steel was determined to have deteriorated.
“We will never in Allen County allow a bridge to become unsafe,” Peters said.