President Barack Obama scared some of us last week when he stopped in Raleigh to pitch his American Jobs Act.
He told an audience at N.C. State University that the nation should beef up spending to repair bad bridges - before one of them falls on us.
"In North Carolina alone, there are 153 structurally deficient bridges that need to be repaired," Obama said Wednesday. "Four of them are near here, on or around the Beltline. Why would we wait to act until another bridge falls?"
Terry Duff called The News & Observer to ask where these dangerous bridges are, so his family can avoid them. Other readers wondered whether there really was cause for alarm.
"Was this merely political hokum used in an attempt to push his new jobs bill or is it a fact?" Edward G. O'Connor wrote in a letter published Friday in The N&O's People's Forum.
DOT engineers and administrators are fielding calls about the president's remarks, too. They say the bridges around the Beltline and across the state are safe.
"The key thing is: We don't have any bridges that are about to fall," said Wally Bowman, DOT's division chief for Wake and six neighboring counties. "We don't have any bridge out there that is structurally inadequate, where it cannot handle the traffic. We make sure those bridges stay in a good state of repair."
Obama appears to have undercounted his bridges. And at the same time - employing the deft spin that political speakers use when they spice up a little information to make a big impression - the president may have over-suggested the risk to public safety.
Under federal guidelines, DOT inspectors examine each of North Carolina's 17,000 bridges at least once every two years. It turns out about 2,700 bridges - not 153 - are rated below federal standards as "structurally deficient." Seven of them are on Raleigh's Beltline.
A misleading label
The Federal Highway Administration applies that scary-sounding label to thousands of bridges across the nation. It basically means the bridge needs careful maintenance and repair to stay in service, and eventually it will have to be rehabilitated or replaced - or closed.
"Structurally deficient doesn't necessarily mean that they are dangerous," said Tom Crosby, spokesman for the Charlotte-based AAA Carolinas motor club, which lobbies for more money to replace old bridges. "If these bridges were dangerous, they would close them down and immediately begin work on them."
Each bridge is graded with a sufficiency rating that gives a 55 percent weight to its structural condition. The score, on a 1-to-100 scale, also includes factors unrelated to safety or structural quality.
One reason the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet has a low rating of 4 is that there is no convenient detour option. DOT awarded a $216 million contract this summer to replace the deteriorating bridge, and it will spend millions more on maintenance before the new one is ready in 2015.
DOT's bridge inspection reports are public records. The agency publishes lists of bridge ratings and other information online at ncdot.gov/projects/ncbridges.
Late Monday, a White House aide said Obama's numbers had come from statistics - which appeared to be incomplete - on deficient federal highways in North Carolina. And if Obama's numbers were squishy, DOT's information was marred by omissions and errors, too.
Four Raleigh Beltline bridges were not listed in the files available online Monday. Two nearly new Raleigh bridges built with freeway projects since 2005 were labeled "structurally deficient" - but DOT officials said those were coding errors.
Four major Raleigh bridges listed as structurally deficient are on schedule for replacement. Jon Nance, DOT chief engineer, said the Capital Boulevard bridge over Peace Street is to be rebuilt in 2016. And in 2018 an Interstate 440 widening project will replace many Beltline bridges, including three deficient ones in west Raleigh between I-40 and Wade Avenue.
AAA publishes a list of the state's top 20 substandard bridges each year, and this year it includes four Raleigh bridges.
Crosby said DOT does a good job of keeping bridges in shape and deciding - with minimal political interference - which ones should be replaced first.
"They just don't have the funds to keep up with the deterioration, and that's where the problem occurs," Crosby said.
"There's no public appetite for increasing the gas tax to work on these things, just no appetite for paying for these repairs. The fact that Obama is bringing attention to it is a good thing."