More than 100 Kentucky bridges have advanced deterioration and are at risk of collapsing, federal records show, and the head of the state's transportation agency blames the situation largely on increased, heavier traffic since the bridges were built.
The Associated Press analyzed data involving 607,380 U.S. bridges in the National Bridge Inventory, which are subject to National Bridge Inspection Standards. On a national basis, there are 65,605 structurally deficient bridges and 20,808 fracture critical bridges, according to the most recently available federal government data.
A bridge is deemed "fracture critical" when it does not have redundant protections and is at risk of collapse if a single, vital component fails. A bridge is "structurally deficient" when it is in need of rehabilitation or replacement because at least one major component of the span has advanced deterioration or other problems that lead inspectors to deem its condition "poor" or worse.
Some 7,795 bridges nationwide fall into both categories. Experts call that combination of red flags particularly problematic.
In Kentucky, the latest federal inventory showed 145 bridges as both structurally deficient and fracture critical, but state officials say 16 of those bridges are no longer in both categories.
Two bridges — the U.S. 60 span over the Tennessee River near Paducah, Ky., and the U.S. 421 bridge over the Ohio River between Milton, Ky., and Madison, Ind. — have been replaced. About 30 others are scheduled to be replaced over the next six years.
There is considerable lag time between when state transportation officials report data to the Federal Highway Administration each year and when updates are made to the federal National Bridge Inventory. Because the federal inventory relies on information from the state departments of transportation, state officials have the latest records.
State officials said they were unsure how many bridges would be reported to the federal inventory when the next updates are expected April 1.
Kentucky transportation officials don't have any records of bridges collapsing, but they said there have been some cases of bridges being damaged. The beam of a bridge in Harlan County, for instance, eventually broke because of overloaded coal trucks crossing it.
All Kentucky bridges are inspected at least once every two years, said David Steele, transportation engineering branch manager for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. Much of the repair and replacement that bridges need is due to increased traffic flow, he said.
"There's so much more traffic out there today than there was when the bridges were designed and built," he said. "Not only is there quantitatively more traffic, but the size of the traffic; the truckloads are heavier than they were 40 or 50 years ago."
About $30 million is spent annually on bridge replacement in Kentucky, of which 80 percent is federal money, Steele said. The rest consists of state and county funds. Another $30 million, most of which is state funds, goes toward repairs.
Trucker James White, 33, said he travels the highways of Tennessee and Kentucky on a daily basis when he's not at home in Trousdale County, Tenn. He didn't name a specific bridge, but he said there are some smaller ones he hopes have been inspected well before he crosses them.
"There are some that I go across with a 90,000-pound load," he said Thursday while fueling up at a truck stop in east Nashville, "and I'm thinking, 'If this bridge don't hold me, I'm gone.'"