13 INVESTIGATES: How safe are our bridges? - WVTM-TV: News, Weather, and Sports for Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: How safe are our bridges?

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BIRMINGHAM, AL -

Lee Carpenter has lived around this Glasgow Road bridge most of his 70 years.

The bridge has been around even longer, 78 years, and is definitely showing its age.

"There's a lot of cracks in it.  There's a lot of, it's peeling off, it's rusting in places, a lot of places.  I would say probably ninety percent of the bridge is probably rust," Carpenter pointed out.

Carpenter has become so concerned about the bridge's stability, he reached out to us.

He asked us to investigate what Jefferson County is doing to maintain the rusting structure, because he claims it is not even being inspected regularly.

"I come across this bridge every day, one way or another, morning and evening.  And I have never seen anybody out here and nobody else has seen anybody out here.  And I feel maybe like a, uh, if I can say, maybe it's easy to do in an air conditioned building sitting somewhere than actually coming out here and getting it done," Carpenter said.

So we went to straight to the woman in charge of Jefferson County's bridge maintenance, Chief Engineer Beth Kornegay.

When we asked her what she would say to residents who feel that not enough is being done to maintain that bridge, Kornegay responded, "We do the best we can.  We have limited funding.   So we, we're not going to leave any bridge open that is unsafe.  We're not going to let a bridge, I mean that bridge, people don't have another way to get to their home it's closed, so we would definitely take care of it if it got to that point.  But we feel it's still very safe."

In fact Kornegay provided us with pictures of the inspectors recently evaluating the bridge and the latest inspection report, which is dated May 7, 2013.

The report noted, "Numerous trans hairline cracks on top and bottom of deck," and, "bearings have heavy rust.  Heavy rust w/ some pitting many connections."   

As a whole though, Kornegay said the inspector gave the bridge fair to satisfactory stability scores.

"The paint peeling is really a cosmetic.  It really doesn't have anything to do with how structurally sound the bridge is," Kornegay claimed.

In fact, the bridge's ‘sufficiency score', used to grade a bridge's overall viability, currently stands at 47 out of 100.

So we decided to dig deeper and find out how that compared to the rest of Jefferson County's bridges and bridges around the state.

We obtained a complete inventory of the state's 15,858 bridges.

Where are the most rundown spans?

We studied the numbers and plotted the ten bridges with the lowest sufficiency scores in Jefferson County.

The lowest score distinction, a '2', goes to the Birmingport Road bridge over Short Creek, which the State is currently replacing.

The Arkadelphia Road bridge, just off Interstate 59, scored a ‘3', but it is scheduled to be replaced in the next year.

A Dickey Springs Road bridge also scored a '3' and Jefferson County is currently replacing it.

A Springdale Road bridge in Tarrant scored a ‘7' and is scheduled for replacement in the next two years.

A small bridge at Cogbil Street in Leeds did not score much higher, a '7.2', and its railings are visibly shaky.

The Avenue I bridge over Highway 150 in Bessemer scored a '13.6.'

A bridge on Bibby Brickyard road in north Jefferson County received a '16.4' sufficiency score.

The downtown Birmingham bridges at 21st Street and 22nd Street over Morris Avenue both scored a '17'.

A small Jones Street bridge in Leeds rounded out our lowest 10 in Jefferson County with a '17.4'.

Taking our evaluation one step further, we examined bridges over our entire 21 county viewing area.

The Birmingport Road bridge still had the lowest sufficiency score.

A wooden bridge on Polk Drive near Montevallo also received a '2'.

The '3's' that the bridges on Arkadelphia Road and Dickey Springs Road scored came in third and fourth.

A Talladega County bridge on State Route 21 near Munford scored a '4'.

Over in Blount County, a River Road bridge's '5.3' was the sixth lowest score.

Three bridges on Highway 278 in northeast Calhoun County all received scores of '6' and all are currently being replaced.

Finally, the Springdale Road bridge rounded out the lowest scoring bridges in our viewing area.

All the bridges we mentioned are labeled 'structurally deficient' a classification given to aging bridges in order to prioritize their replacement.

If you would like to see an interactive map of the all 50 structurally deficient bridges in Jefferson County, click here. For a full list of all of Alabama's bridges and their sufficiency scores, click here.

Nearly 9% of all the bridges in Alabama fall into that category.

George Conner is a Maintenance Engineer with the Alabama Department of Transportation, which is responsible for more than a third of the state's bridges.

When we asked him if it is acceptable that one out of ten bridges in the state structurally deficient, he replied, "I would say that if you look in ideal world we would not have any bridges that were not in perfect condition.  We would not have any roadways that were not in perfect condition.  We simply do not have the kinds of monies that would be necessary to maintain them at that level."

When compared to other states, though, Alabama's maintenance level is pretty competitive.

According to the Better Roads Magazine, which compiles bridge data from all fifty states annually, the national average for ‘structurally deficient' bridges is 10.6 percent per state.

That's a notch worse than Alabama's nine percent.

In fact, there are only 19 states with a better percentage of bridges in that substandard classification.

"Ideally we would have zero, but we have reduced them consistently and that's a good trend and one we're proud of," Conner concluded.

Despite our findings, Lee Carpenter still argues his aging bridge is being ignored.

"We need a new bridge.  And if I don't do something, I don't know of anybody else who cares anything about it," Carpenter stressed.

Jefferson County said there are no plans to repaint or replace Carpenter's bridge in the near future.

George Conner with the DOT said the best indication of a bridge's instability is if it has weight limit sign posted by it.

Most of the bridges we profiled have posted weight limits.

However, Conner stressed as long you obey those limits, the bridge is safe.   

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