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Fixing Oregon bridges.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Oregonians should be relieved - but not too relieved - that a new state inspection has found that Oregon bridges with designs similar to the Minnesota span that collapsed last month have no "imminent safety issues."

The collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis alarmed Oregon officials, and for good reason. After all, Oregon ranks fourth in the nation for the number of steel-deck-truss bridges similar in design to the Minneapolis bridge.

Age is another major concern. While the Minneapolis bridge was approximately 40 years old, the average age of Oregon bridges is more than half a century.

Nor is it any secret that the state's bridges need overhauls to fix cracks, corrosion or other problems. Of Oregon's 2,683 state bridges, about a third have been deemed either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

Yet most remain in regular use, with weight and safety limits aimed at extending their useful lives and preventing catastrophic failure.

But a hands-on inspection of Oregon's 47 steel deck truss bridges prudently ordered by Gov. Ted Kulongoski (many states opted for reviews of previous inspections) after the Minneapolis incident has turned up no major problems.

There's still cause for concern and vigilance. After a five-week review, state inspectors reported Wednesday that nearly 20 percent of the state's steel-deck-truss bridges have fatigue cracks, rust on steel beams and an array of minor structural problems.

The fatigue cracks are especially worrisome. The result of decades of pounding by millions of vehicles, they are a reminder that bridges can endure only so much wear. Unless the spans are repaired and properly maintained, they eventually will crack and break, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Moreover, many of the steel deck truss bridges are "fracture critical" - engineering jargon for spans that lack redundancy or secondary support.

In other words, the failure of one section could cause others to fail as well.

Perhaps the most heartening aspect of the inspection is that there were no surprises. State transportation officials said they were fully aware of the condition of the steel-deck-truss bridges, including those with fatigue cracks, rust and other problems. As Bruce Johnson, state bridge engineer, said, "We didn't find anything outstanding or unusual that we didn't realize was there."

That's indicative of a state that has been dealing aggressively with its aging infrastructure in recent years. In 2003, the Oregon Legislature approved $1.3 billion in statewide projects, although the primary rationale for the program was concern that wear and tear would restrict the capacity of the bridges to carry freight traffic and not concerns about a Minneapolis-style collapse.

The new report should prod state lawmakers to commit more money to bridge and highway repair. With a population that is expected to increase dramatically, and freight traffic along with it, it's vitally important for the Legislature to ramp up transportation funding and make the investments necessary to protect public safety and keep the state's economy rolling in decades to come.

State legislators appear ready to meet the challenge. State Rep. Terry Beyer, D-Springfield, the chairwoman of the House Committee on Transportation, has acknowledged the need for a major increase in transportation funding. State Sen. Rick Metsger, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, says lawmakers are preparing a funding package that may equal the $2.5 billion package approved in 2003.

The problem is of sufficient magnitude that lawmakers should consider increasing the state gas tax to raise the money needed for transportation improvements.Kulongoski rightly observed Thursday that Oregonians, who rejected a nickel-a-gallon increase in 2000, may now be willing to accept an increase if they can be shown that the state's aging bridges and roads need major repairs.

The state's inspection of its steel deck trussbridges provides a good start. Now, the governor and lawmakers must do what's necessary to ensure that bridge-collapse history does not repeat itself in Oregon.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Report both reassuring and a cause for concern
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 1, 2007
Next Article:Ratify Law of the Sea.

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