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My view: Bridge safety is UDOT priority

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 22 2007 12:08 a.m. MDT

We at the Utah Department of Transportation are saddened by the tragic collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minnesota. Our hearts and our prayers go out to the victims and their families. And our sympathy and support go out to our colleagues at the Minnesota Department of Transportation, who must sort out how and why this happened and how to prevent it from happening again.

Here at home, we want to assure Utahns and others who travel our state's roads that there is no cause for alarm here. Our bridges are safe.

That said, I believe there is a bit of explanation in order. The Minneapolis bridge collapse introduced a new and ominous term into the American vernacular: "structurally deficient." The Minneapolis bridge was rated "structurally deficient." Thousands of others around the nation also fall into that category. Does this mean that they are in imminent danger of failing? In a word, no. It does not.

"Structurally deficient" does not mean "unsafe." The term comes from the National Bridge Inspection Standards, a standard system of rating bridges in all states and municipalities and on federal facilities. The term is applied when the condition of one or more of three components — bridge deck, superstructure or substructure — receives a rating of four or less on a scale of zero to nine, with nine being the best rating. These ratings result from biennial (and in some cases more frequent) bridge inspections, our first line of defense for preventing the possibility of bridge failure.

Simply put, the term is one used by engineers to indicate that the structure is, or will soon be, in need of some work. If the bridge were unsafe, we would close it to traffic until it was repaired or replaced.

Nationally, more than 12 percent of bridges fall into the structurally deficient category. It Utah, only 8 percent do. This is due in part to major projects like the rebuilding of I-15 in Salt Lake County, which replaced 146 bridges. The I-15 NOW project in Weber County is replacing 27 bridges. The rebuilding of I-80 from State Street to 1300 East, scheduled next year, will replace seven more of our bridges.

But what of the older bridges? The Utah Department of Transportation has four principles that guide it in its strategic approach to our transportation system. The first of these is: "Take care of what we have." That means maintaining a robust bridge inspection program that assures that any problems with aging structures are identified and repaired. UDOT employs four full-time bridge inspectors. We also hire consultants to handle yet more inspections, to provide expert opinions and advice, and to validate in-house conclusions. In the wake of the I-35W tragedy, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman called on UDOT to re-inspect several hundred of our older bridges. We are confident that these re-inspections will verify our conclusion that the bridges are safe.

We are fortunate here in Utah to have strong leadership on bridge safety from state politicians, who have given us the funding we need to ensure your safety. This past legislative session alone, the governor recommended and the Legislature funded UDOT an additional $30 million for bridge repairs.

"Take care of what we have" is one of UDOT's primary strategic goals. Equally important is: "Improve safety." We are doing exactly that. When you drive across a bridge, you are entitled to the assumption that the structure is safe and sound. We are doing everything in our power to ensure that assumption is correct.


John R. Njord is the executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation.

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