Engineers Say Terminology Alarms Consumers after Minn. Bridge Collapse

September 28, 2007

State highway officials around the country want the government to stop scaring the public by using dire-sounding phrases such as “structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete” to describe bridges in need of repairs.

In interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press, some engineers say the terms are making America’s bridges sound shakier than they really are, and they would prefer less-alarming phrases, or perhaps a “Health Index” for the nation’s spans.

The issue came up after the Minneapolis bridge collapse Aug. 1 that killed 13 people. The span, along with more than 73,000 other U.S. bridges, had been classified as structurally deficient, a term some engineers say sent shudders across the nation because it was widely misunderstood.

“People seem to think a bridge is within a hair’s breadth of collapse when they hear these terms,” Montana’s chief transportation engineer Loran Frazier vented in an e-mail survey of his peers after the Interstate 35W disaster. “There seemed to be borderline hysteria regarding the bridges.”

At least one highway-safety watchdog group agreed that the terms are misleading and ought to be changed, and said there is little risk that new terminology would give the public a false sense of security about the nation’s bridges.

Control over the labeling system rests with Congress and the Federal Highway Administration, part of the Transportation Department.

The Federal Highway Administration issued a written statement Wednesday to AP from spokesman Ian Grossman.

“Secretary Mary Peters requested the DOT Inspector General to conduct a rigorous assessment of the Federal Highway Administration National Bridge Inspection Program, including the use of specific terminology,” Grossman said. “We will work closely with the IG on any recommendations they might make that will strengthen our program.”

Such terminology is expected to be discussed when the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials holds its annual conference beginning Thursday in Milwaukee. The association conducted the survey, and the AP obtained the results as part of a government records request.

“I don’t believe the industry understood how big of a problem it was until they started trying to explain it to the media and to the public,” said Kelley Rehm, the association’s program manager for bridges and structures.

About 12 percent of the nation’s 607,363 bridges are classified as structurally deficient, according to 2006 figures from the FHA.

The terms date to 1978, when Congress updated guidelines for replacing and rehabilitating bridges. The categories are important because they determine how federal money is doled out to states.

A bridge is typically labeled “structurally deficient” if regular inspections uncover significant deterioration such as advanced cracking in concrete or steel components. The rating often leads to weight restrictions and increased monitoring and maintenance.

The term “functionally obsolete” is applied to bridges that don’t meet current design standards, generally because of changing traffic demands. Bridges built decades ago, for instance, sometimes carry narrower shoulders or lower clearance than today’s structures.

“Fracture critical” is applied to bridges without multiple backup features, meaning that if one critical component failed, the entire structure could give way.

The Interstate 35W bridge was rated both structurally deficient and fracture critical. The cause of the disaster is still under investigation.

Within days of the collapse, Rehm’s association polled state transportation departments about their feelings toward the labels. Transportation officials from New Hampshire to Wyoming urged adoption of new terminology.

“Car dealers no longer have ‘used’ cars. They instead switched to ‘previously owned.’ Can’t we similarly come up with nomenclature that is less of an issue?” Minnesota said in its response.

Frazier, the Montana engineer, said in an interview that something as simple as “eligible” or “noneligible” for federal dollars would work for him. Utah’s representative recommended adding a category like “critically deficient.” A Mississippi official suggested a “Health Index.”

Gregory Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, an advocacy group for motorists, said he favors making the terms more understandable to the public and does not worry that a change would reduce pressure to spend more on bridges.

“Of course if they do that it could always come back and bite them,” said Cohen, an engineer by training. “Say they do start describing things in flowery terms and another bridge falls down, then they’ll have egg all over their face.”

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