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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008 05:50 pm

Bad bridges due to bonehead budget cuts

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The Associated Press did a nationwide survey of bridge conditions in 2007, and recently a follow-up piece to assess progress. The first report found that 20 heavily traveled Texas spans were classified "structurally deficient" by highway authorities. A year later, only one has been fixed.

Engineers apply the term "structurally deficient" to bridges that are so deteriorated they must be repaired or closely monitored. America's 590,000 bridges are rated on a scale of 1 to 100, and any scoring 80 or lower are problematic enough to qualify for federal repair funds. The I-35 bridge in Minneapolis where 13 people were killed last August was rated 50 when it went down. One of the 20 Texas bridges has a score of 46.

What we have here is an abject failure of political leadership going back 30 years. Budget-slashing, no-tax boneheads took over the public debate in the late 1970s. Politicians of both parties simply quit funding the year-in-year-out maintenance necessary to keep our national house from . . . well, from collapsing.

"Bridging the Gap" (www.transportation1.org/BridgeReport/), a report from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation, says the tab will be $140 billion just to repair existing bridges. Most are designed to last a maximum of 50 years, and the average age of the country's spans is already 43 years — with one in five having passed the half-century mark.

Equally alarming is the inaccuracy of the National Bridge Inventory. After the Minneapolis crash, federal authorities mandated an emergency inspection of all similar steel-deck truss bridges. The inventory listed 756 of these. Wrong. Inspectors found that 280 were not that type at all. Indeed, 16 didn't even exist, 13 were wooden, and a Maryland bridge was actually in Pennsylvania.

Come on, people, this is America. These essential assets must be fixed and kept up. Start demanding that every political candidate — from city council to president — get on the ball.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist, and author.

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