WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday approved an ambitious bridge safety bill that could help protect some of the 3,140 structurally deficient bridges in California, a grim-sounding roster that includes hundreds in the Central Valley.
Spurred by the collapse last year of a heavily traveled Minneapolis bridge, lawmakers are offering more safety money and stricter inspection rules. Potentially, considerable resources could reach California.
"Our bridges, roadways and transportation systems are the backbone of our nation and economy," said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento. "Improving the safety standards for our bridges delivers on our responsibility to preserve public safety."
The Bush administration opposes the bill as extravagant. Although Bush's Capitol Hill clout is vastly diminished, and the House approved the measure by an overwhelming 376-55 margin, more changes are likely.
"This bill practically eliminates any flexibility a state has to transfer funding from the bridge program to other federal highway programs when there are urgent needs to do so," cautioned Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn. "We are concerned about that."
The $5.5 billion bill adds $1 billion to what Congress had previously planned to spend next year on bridge safety. It also calls for more systematic inspections of structurally deficient bridges, like the roughly two dozen dotting Interstate 5 between Tracy and Bakersfield.
The bridges judged structurally deficient may not be immediately dangerous; in fact, California Department of Transportation officials stress the bridges' overall safety. Some are listed because they need maintenance or constant monitoring. Still, these are the bridges deemed potentially vulnerable.
"We always like more money," CalTrans spokesman Matt Rocco said, while adding that "we are currently reviewing the bill."
Altogether, the National Bridge Inventory shows nearly 300 Central Valley bridges located on national highway system roads between Chico and Bakersfield are judged structurally deficient. Many are clustered along sections of I-5, Interstate 80 east of Sacramento and State Route 99.
State Route 99 is part of the 162,000-mile national highway system, although it is not an interstate. Eventually, Valley lawmakers want the age-pocked highway designated as an interstate so that it becomes eligible for additional funding.
Statewide, 27 percent of California's 7,467 national highway system bridges are judged structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. A functionally obsolete bridge may not be able to handle modern-day traffic loads.
On roads not part of the national highway system, 29 percent of California's remaining 16,717 bridges are considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
Sensitive about criticism over pork barrel spending, lawmakers omitted individual projects and earmarks in the new National Highway Bridge Reconstruction and Inspection Act. Still, it's an acutely local bill for some lawmakers who represent constituents killed in bridge accidents.
Thirteen people died and upward of 100 were injured last August when Minnesota's I-35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River. Subsequent investigation revealed the 40-year-old bridge was rated as structurally deficient, though the cause of the collapse is still under official investigation.
"A tragedy is indeed a terrible thing to waste," said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. "Whenever a tragedy befalls us, it does not do proper justice and honor to the victims of that tragedy to not learn from it and to do better in the future."
Some state transportation officials worry the bill will restrict their ability to shift highway funds among different projects. The bill limits how federal bridge improvement dollars can be transferred, unless the state has already fixed its problems. The bill also requires officials to rank risky bridges by priority, so limited safety dollars can be directed.
All bridges will have to be inspected at least once every two years, and structurally deficient bridges will need inspection every year. California officials note they already inspect every bridge under their control every two years.
The Senate has not yet passed its own version of the bridge safety bill.
Here is a link to Department of Transportation page mapping inadequate national highway system bridges in California. It can be searched by congressional district: