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State's bridges offer safe crossing

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Published:   |   Updated: July 7, 2013 at 02:07 AM

TAMPA - Florida is taking better care of its bridges than any state in the nation and surpasses all but California and Texas in expenditures on state highways, two studies by national transportation policy groups report.

Florida, Nevada and Texas respectively ranked as the states with the lowest percentage of deficient bridges, and Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Iowa the worst, the Transportation For America group found based on federal data through 2012.

A Reason Foundation report based on 2009 comparative data said Florida ranked third in expenditures behind California and Texas at $6.7 billion, and Florida's average expenditure of per mile $551,045 was 3.8 times the national average.

Findings from the separate reports released in the past month indicate Florida's focus and expenditures on its highway infrastructure have weathered recessionary budget cuts better than most states.

"Transportation is the backbone for the economy," Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said in a telephone interview last week. "It affects the food we eat, a trip to the doctor's office, taking the kids to school and going to the beach.

"It is a testament to Gov. Scott and previous governors and the Legislature that the state has continued to invest in transportation infrastructure."

Scott's fiscal 2014 $9.4 billion transportation budget fully funds FDOT's $8.6 billion "work program."

That includes $3.8 billion for highway construction, $767 million for maintenance and operation, $410 million for public transit grants, $288 million for bridge repair and replacement of 31 bridges and $150 million for safety initiatives.

Although the Transportation For America report found 11 percent, or about 66,400, of the nation's 605,000 bridges were rated deficient - meaning they require significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement - only 2.2 percent, or 265, of Florida's 12,000 bridges are deficient.

Among those are six within 10 miles of downtown Tampa, two in St. Petersburg, one in Clearwater and the northbound span (eastbound to Tampa) of the Howard Frankland Bridge.

"All bridges in Florida are safe to travel," Prasad said. "There is not one I would not take my wife and daughter across. Our position is that we either restrict loads or shut a bridge down."

The Interstate 5 Skagit River Bridge collapse in May in Washington state was the most recent major event to cast public attention on the nation's highway infrastructure shortcomings.

Vehicles tumbled into the river between Seattle and the Canadian border, but no one was killed.

The bridge was not rated structurally deficient, but it was one of 20,000 U.S. bridges rated "fracture critical," without redundant supporting elements, and it was a candidate for replacement, the Transportation For America report stated.

"The good news is that some states have worked hard to address the problem and have reduced the backlog of deficient bridges," the report stated.

Florida fits that category, reducing its deficient bridges from 300 in 2011 to 265 in 2013, an 11.7 percent decrease.

Bridges have three primary components: the deck on which vehicles cross; the superstructure, which supports the deck; and the substructure, which uses the ground to support the superstructure. Federal guidelines classify bridges as "structurally deficient" if one of the three key components is rated a "four" or less on a scale of zero to nine.

Five of the 10 deficient bridges in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area have decks rated poor or less; five have superstructure rated poor or less; and one has substructure rated poor.

FDOT is studying design options to replace the northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge between 2020 and 2025 in a project estimated to cost about $370 million.

The span has exceeded its 50-year design life, and it is more efficient to replace it than maintain it, FDOT District 7 manager Ming Gao said.

The July 2013 annual report by the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation used data compiled through 2009.

It found two-thirds of poor condition rural Interstate mileage is in five states: California, Alaska, Minnesota, New York and Colorado. Florida ranked 25th best, but that represented just 0.15 percent of poor rural Interstate miles.

Half of poor condition urban interstate mileage is in five states: California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Texas. Florida ranked 17th best, with 1.47 percent of poor urban Interstate miles.

"A widening gap seems to be emerging between most states that are making progress and a few states that are finding it difficult to improve," the Reason report said.

Choosing 11 factors, including highway conditions, maintenance expenditures, narrow lanes on rural roads and fatality rates, the Reason report ranked Florida 37th in overall highway performance and efficiency, up from 40 and 39 in the past two annual reports.

Florida's national rank was shaped by low ratings in fatality rates, Interstate congestion and narrow rural roads.

While the two reports drew on similar data to focus on specific transportation factors, authors from the two policy groups differed markedly in their outlook on the state of the nation's transportation infrastructure.

"Although it is widely believed that the U.S. highway system is crumbling, objective data tell a different story," the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation said.

The foundation indicated the latest U.S. Department of Transportation report to Congress showed pavement and bridge condition, congestion and accident rates have improved in the past decade.

Progressive groups frequently challenge Reason reports because the group states its mission is to promote libertarian principles. Contributors include oil industry interests such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell Oil, the American Petroleum Institute and the Koch Family Foundation.

Washington, D.C.-based Transportation For America, which lists the AARP, Amtrak, CEOs for Cities, The Real Estate Foundation and the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association among its coalition partners, reached a different conclusion from appraising relatively similar data - albeit two years fresher.

"Considering declining gas tax revenue for transportation and other budget woes, securing the money to repair or replace thousands of bridges, while fixing the other parts of our aging highway and transit networks, is a critical national issue," the group said.

tjackovics@tampatrib.com

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