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Bridge safety research program in works

A report found a third of N.J.'s spans were not up to par. Another priced fixes at $13.6 billion.

TRENTON - With a third of New Jersey bridges considered either obsolete or deficient, state legislators yesterday moved to create a bridge safety research program meant to prevent a collapse similar to the one that killed 13 people in Minnesota.

A recent state report on the 6,400 large bridges in New Jersey found 4,200 bridges in good condition, but 1,500 obsolete bridges and about 700 deficient bridges. The report was ordered by Gov. Corzine following the Aug. 1 collapse along I-35W in Minneapolis.

Another report estimated the state would have to spend $13.6 billion in the next 10 years to fix its bridges.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski proposed having Rutgers University create a program to study bridge degradation, improved design methods, and new methods for building, testing and repairing state bridges.

His bill would provide $500,000 to start the program and at least $1 million more in coming years to keep it running.

"Preparation now will help prevent catastrophic failures in the future," said Wisniewski (D., Middlesex).

The bill was released yesterday by the Assembly Transportation Committee chaired by Wisniewski and can now be considered by the full Assembly.

Under the plan, Rutgers' Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation would create the program.

Ali Maher, the center's director, said the funding would help Rutgers find new bridge technology and lure federal research money.

"We would like to look into and get a better understanding of how bridges deteriorate," Maher said.

But Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck (R., Monmouth) questioned why legislators would give $1.5 million to Rutgers while the state Transportation Department oversees and inspects bridges.

"At a time when we don't have a lot of money in the state of New Jersey, why aren't we supplementing DOT?" Beck asked.

Wisniewski said Rutgers' research could break new ground.

"We want to be ahead of the curve," Maher added.

Corzine is finalizing a plan to pay state debt and repair transportation infrastructure such as bridges by increasing highway tolls.

Corzine hasn't said how much tolls may increase, but Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri has said the state needs to increase tolls 45 percent just to widen the New Jersey Turnpike and fix bridges on it and the Garden State Parkway.