Taking Action Investigation: Troubled Bridges In The Tennessee Valley

MADISON COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) – After the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge in Washington state  – it came to light that the Federal Highway Administration classified the bridge as ‘functionally obsolete.’

Suddenly the term became associated with the danger.

It left us wondering how our own bridges would stack up against the one on the Skagit River.

We found that in Madison County alone, there are 221 listings of bridges fit that same classification – functionally obsolete.

It’s an issue that can really hit home.

Amanda Anderson, for one, frequently crosses the bridge at Old Madison Pike and Indian Creek.

She takes her young son to exercise.

But for a while now, she’s had questions about the bridge, “I think I’ve traveled that road for ten years or more now, so yeah, for years it’s caught my attention.”

Anderson noticed an inevitable truth, and Alabama Department of Transportation Division Engineer Johnny Harris notes the same, “Our bridges are continuing to age.”

They age a lot like people, with deepening lines and creaking joints.

Harris points out, “A lot of them are approaching almost a hundred years of service life.”

Yet still we ask many to bear the weight of thousands of cars a day across their weary shoulders.

People don’t realize how old some of these bridges have gotten.

Anderson ventures a guess on the bridge across Old Madison Pike, “I’m going conservative and saying 1980.”

She could only manage a word when we told her it was built in 1936, “Wow.”

Anderson does note, “It does worry me when I look at it.”

The National Bridge Inventory Database tells us this bridge is rated structurally deficient, an even worse designation than the functionally obsolete that the Skagit River bridge earned.

So what does it mean to be structurally deficient?

Huntsville Director of City Engineering Kathy Martin explains, “That structure requires more routine inspections and maintenance.”

Johnny Harris adds, “It means that there has been some deterioration of the actual members that make up the bridge components.”

So we took action to find out just how many bridges fit this category.

It turns out, the database lists 41 structurally deficient bridges in Madison County alone.

What’s more we found some pretty shocking numbers.

Bridges are classified by sufficiency ratings.  Martin draws out that definition for us, “A sufficiency rating is a way for FHWA to categorize all bridges, all structures nationally.”

These numbers range from zero to one-hundred, and they give you an idea of how much attention the bridge needs.

The bridge on Old Madison Pike – only scores a 39.

How did we get here?

Kathy Martin says simply, “It’s a funding issue.”

The Alabama Department of Transportation gets its funding from the federal government.

Harris notes, “We’ve been operating at basically level or less than normal funding that we’ve had over the last six to eight years.”

If we want to clear the list of structurally deficient bridges we have to pay for it.

And that would mean raising taxes.

Though as Anderson notes, “It’s people’s lives that are on the line.”

Like this mother – we may feel the concern over these bridges in our gut, but would we be willing to pay?

As for that bridge on Old Madison Pike, it’s been slated for reconstruction since last year.

City Engineer Kathy Martin says ALDOT has it on the schedule.

Bids for the contract should come in around August, with construction starting about two months after that.

Want to find the rating of bridges near your house?

You can find the National Bridge Inventory Database here.

Select Alabama or Tennessee from the list of states and put the county code (listed below) in the box that requests a County FIPS Code.

You can sort the list by street or sufficiency rating.  You can also select ‘Functionally Obsolete’ or ‘Structurally Deficient’ to find the designations you’re looking for on the list.

Lauderdale – 077Colbert – 033
Franklin – 059
Limestone – 083
Lawrence – 079
Cullman – 043
Madison – 089
Lincoln County, TN – 103
Jackson – 071
Marshall – 095
DeKalb – 049

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