Patching a Problem: What engineers and inspectors are doing abou - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Patching a Problem: What engineers and inspectors are doing about broken bridges

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The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) says there are thousands of inspectors across the country doing inspections everyday, and that if they deem a bridge "unsafe" -- they do something about it immediately. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) says there are thousands of inspectors across the country doing inspections everyday, and that if they deem a bridge "unsafe" -- they do something about it immediately.
SPOKANE, Wash. -

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) says there are thousands of inspectors across the country doing inspections everyday, and that if they deem a bridge "unsafe" -- they do something about it immediately.

At the same time, all that's required to cause a fracture critical bridge to collapse is a single unexpected event that damages a key portion of the structure. It's like predicting where an earthquake is going to hit. The Interstate 5 bridge that collapsed into the Skagit River back in 2013 was fracture critical.

RELATED: BROKEN BRIDGES: How a bridge inspection is done

While the Skagit span did not get designated structurally deficient, the I-35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis back in 2007 did. The bridge fell during rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring more than 100 others. The National Transportation Safety Board says the cause of the collapse was an error by the bridge's designers, not any of the issues found by bridge inspectors. The NTSB's final investigation concluded that a fracture critical component of the bridge was too thin.

Inspectors linked to the National Science Foundation look at the majority of our countries bridges. They pay their bridges a visit roughly every two years to assess its condition. However, they admit that they often get a heads up from a fisherman, canoeist or other passerby about major damage that may have occurred between inspections.

Washington State's Department of Transportation, as well as county and city, inspectors often examine their bridges more frequently -- especially certain bridges on their short list of getting replaced soon.

Once an inspector classified those bridges as structurally deficient, that information is passed on to the state and then to the federal government so the bridges get entered into the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Bridge Inventory.

RELATED: Broken Bridges: A closer look at a crumbling piece of our transportation system

According to that database Washington state ranks No. 36 out of all 50 states in terms of the number of structurally deficient bridges. Idaho ranks 34th. https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/bridge/nbi/no10/defbr14.cfm

It's important to note that a bridge getting classified as structurally deficient does not mean it is unsafe for you to drive on. When they are left open to traffic, these bridges normally require significant repairs to stay open and eventually need to be rehabilitated or replaced to address their issues.

The seemingly never ending repair cycle is something WSDOT sees in some of its workers.

"That is frustrating for the crews, because they know they're going to be back, and they know they're spending their money doing patchwork repair when they know a bridge deck needs to be replaced or a bridge needs to be replaced," Al Gilson, who works for WSDOT, said.

"They know they're going to be back because they're not solving a problem. They're just patching over it."

Gilson told KHQ his department spends about $600,00 doing repairs on bridge decks and other parts of the structure. WSDOT will also be replacing three bridge decks in Adams County in the summer of 2016 at a cost of about $1 million per deck. It's a costly concern Gilson knows all to well.

"There's just not enough money to go around for this aging infrastructure," he said.

In order to keep structurally deficient bridges open, workers will often post weight limits restricting the total weight of vehicles allowed on the bridge.

WSDOT told KHQ in addition to hoping truckers and other drivers obey those signs, they also have sheriff's deputies and police officers do stings on these bridges to make sure the weight limits are being obeyed.

Gilson, as well as engineers from the city and county of Spokane, all told KHQ that if any of their bridges were deemed unsafe, the bridge(s) in question would be closed.

Wednesday night on KHQ Local News at 6pm, we delve in-depth into the question of how broken our bridges in the Inland Northwest are, what engineers are doing to make sure catastrophe doesn't come here, and whether anyone is trying to bridge a funding gap that's growing by the day.

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