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Aging Bridges Among Country’s Infrastructure Woes

As the economic crisis continues, a similar crisis looms in the country's aging infrastructure. In the first of a series of reports, Ray Suarez takes a look at Pennsylvania's bridge problem and how it may impact future economic recovery efforts.

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    It was just a little over a year ago that a bridge carrying Interstate 35 over the Mississippi in Minneapolis, Minnesota, came crashing down during the evening rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring over 140 others.

    The bridge recently reopened, but the disaster in Minnesota woke the nation up to a disturbing fact: Structurally deficient bridges and overpasses exist in every state.

    According to the Federal Highway Administration, more than 72,000 bridges across the country are in some sort of trouble.

    This summer, I went to Pennsylvania, which holds the dubious distinction of having more structurally deficient bridges than any other state.

    This is a raised section of Interstate 95 right outside Philadelphia. On average, 180,000 trucks and cars pass over this eight-mile stretch each day. And it's a safe bet most of those drivers have no idea what's going on right beneath their wheels.

    On this day, an inspector is monitoring a key part of the structure. He's face to face with areas of cracked concrete, rusting steel, and holes in girders you could put your fist through.

    Engineer Charles Davies from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, PennDOT, reviews most major bridge repairs in the area.

    CHARLES DAVIES, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation: And you see the drainage system that is almost completely non-functional now. When you're here during a thunderstorm, it can really be a dramatic, almost like Niagara Falls coming off these piers.


    Last march, a state inspector — passing by here after a lunch break — noticed potentially disastrous cracks in a previously examined column. No one could say exactly when the pillar and the portion of I-95 it was supporting would have collapsed, but there was talk of weeks, not years.


    The system would not have been functional without this column, and it could have lead to a catastrophic failure.


    Emergency repairs on the damaged column shut this busy section of highway down for two-and-a-half days and created a traffic nightmare on this major East Coast artery. The close call is what has inspectors busy seven months later.


    It told us how difficult it sometimes is to predict the behavior of components that are seriously deteriorating. It was a location that we had identified for repairs. We thought we had more time than ultimately it turned out to be.

    So these are difficult to predict, particularly when they reach the end of their service life and when conditions get severely deteriorated.