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Four city bridges deemed 'serious safety hazards'

INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS At least four Philadelphia bridges need repairs to correct "serious safety hazards," City Controller Alan Butkovitz said yesterday.


At least four Philadelphia bridges need repairs to correct "serious safety hazards," City Controller Alan Butkovitz said yesterday.

Butkovitz emphasized that no bridge was in danger of immediate collapse but that frequent use by heavy vehicles could "lead to more costly repairs and, even worse, the possibility of structural collapse and an ensuing tragedy."

The controller's office reviewed 23 bridges selected randomly from the 360 the city owns. The four in most need of repair are the Willow Grove Avenue, Calumet Street, Edison Avenue, and Henry Avenue Bridges.

The Willow Grove Avenue Bridge, in Chestnut Hill, has lost sections on a number of beams to corrosion, the controller's report said. The city plans to reconstruct the bridge in 2011.

In a written response to Butkovitz, Philadelphia Streets Commissioner Clarena Tolson said the city would inspect the bridge regularly until reconstruction began.

Butkovitz said vehicles heavier than the posted three-ton limit regularly crossed the bridge, accelerating problems.

Tolson said she would ask police to monitor the bridge more closely.

On the Calumet Street Bridge, in North Philadelphia, steel beams are exposed, heavily rusted, and corroded. Tolson said the Streets Department had removed some of the concrete casing from the bridge to keep the material from falling onto SEPTA rails below. Removing the casing does not reduce the bridge's load-carrying ability, Tolson said.

On the Edison Avenue Bridge, in the Far Northeast, concrete is crumbling, and several parts of the parapet are crushed or broken, a safety hazard. The city has allotted money to reconstruct the bridge in fiscal 2013. Tolson said the city had repaired the parapet after Butkovitz's office completed its inspection.

Chipping concrete on the Henry Avenue Bridge, in Roxborough, has exposed reinforcing steel piers, and steel plates at bearings are rusted and corroded.

After Butkovitz's office completed the inspection, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which owns the Henry Avenue Bridge but has an agreement that the city will maintain it, began repairs that it will pay for and expects to complete this month.

The controller's office inspected the bridges from July through October 2008. Reports often take a year to complete because of the need to check facts, talk to the departments involved, and complete other reports, First Deputy City Controller Harvey Rice said.

Butkovitz estimated repairs for the four bridges could cost as much as $3.4 million. Replacing them could cost $33 million.

Deteriorating bridges are a widespread problem throughout Pennsylvania and much of the nation, as age, use, and weather wear them out.

After a Minnesota highway bridge collapsed in 2007, killing 13 people, a PennDot survey found 404 bridges in the five-county Southeastern Pennsylvania region that, like the Minnesota bridge, were "structurally deficient." Pennsylvania has nearly 6,000 structurally deficient highway bridges, more than any other state.

Railroad bridges throughout the region are also deficient: The Inquirer reported in September that Amtrak's bridge-inspection reports show nearly half its 302 bridges in the Philadelphia region have some elements rated poor or worse.

Butkovitz also found that:

Once the city identified problems on bridges, it often did nothing about them and failed to document whether conditions were getting worse.

The city does not meet state guidelines requiring bridges with weight restrictions to be inspected yearly instead of every two years.

The city bridge-maintenance unit does not have a database for prioritizing and managing work orders.

Tolson said that after Butkovitz completed his audit in October 2008, Pennsylvania adopted a policy of having more frequent inspections, and that the city also now checks more often.

Tolson said her department planned to develop an automated system to better prioritize repairs.