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Area has share of questionable bridges

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on August 3, 2007.

There are 43 "structurally deficient" bridges in the greater Jacksonville area, including 18 owned by Duval County, according to federal data analyzed by the Times-Union in the wake of Wednesday's Minnesota bridge collapse.

Twenty-three of those bridges - spread across Duval, Nassau, St. Johns, Clay and Baker counties - have not been inspected since 2004, according to data through the end of 2006, despite federal requirements that bridges deemed structurally deficient be checked every year.

The Federal Highway Administration has not yet made 2007 data available.

Structurally deficient bridges are those that have received a grade lower than 50 percent during their last inspection. Bridges are rated on four factors, such as structural adequacy and serviceability.

Getting that label doesn't mean the structure is unsafe, said Keith Campbell, structure maintenance engineer for the state Department of Transportation's District 2 office, which covers 18 North Florida counties.

"Those bridges are by definition in poor condition, but they are safe for travel," he said. "Bridges that are open to traffic now are safe."

The North Florida transportation district has responsibility for 1,173 bridges, the highest number in the state. It also has almost a quarter of the state's bridges that were built prior to 1960.

Statewide, though, almost half of Florida's bridges are owned by other governmental entities, such as cities or counties. The state Department of Transportation hires inspectors, who are paid with federal dollars, to inspect those bridges, but has no mechanism by which to force municipalities to repair bridges that might have problems. "As owners, they're ultimately responsible," Campbell said.

According to the federal figures, which do not include inspections done this year, Duval County owns 18 structurally deficient bridges, Baker County owns six, St. Johns five, Nassau two and Clay one.

Only seven deficient bridges in all of North Florida are owned by the state, Campbell said, with the latest deficiency being discovered during an inspection about six months ago. Campbell declined to identify any of the bridges or in which counties they are situated, citing national security concerns.

However, the Federal Highway Administration data identifies eight structurally deficient bridges in the greater Jacksonville area, with four in Duval County, and two each in Nassau and St. Johns counties. State transportation officials were unavailable late Thursday to explain the discrepancy in the figures.

When inspections discover problems with bridges, Campbell said, repairs will be made, but the "deficient" label will not be removed until the entire structure is replaced, a project that is supposed to begin within five years of the deficiency being discovered.

Until the replacement is done, the bridge is to be inspected every year. All bridges, according to the federal government, are to be inspected every two years.

But data from the Federal Highway Administration going through the end of 2006 shows that many structurally deficient bridges are not inspected on that timetable.

Of the at least 306 bridges that fall into that category, three - one in Columbia County and two in Escambia County - were not inspected between 2001 and the end of 2006, the last data available.

Another three bridges - one each in Monroe, Indian River and Alachua counties - have not been looked at since 2003, according to the data.



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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