About a tenth of the Bay Area’s bridges need major fixes, according to ratings by the Department of Transportation(DOT).
Of California’s 24,955 bridges, overpasses and on-ramps, 3,935 of them are in the Bay Area and carry an average of 125 million cars each day.
DOT Engineers use a formula that rates these bridges across the country from 1 to 100, called a "Sufficiency Rating", taking into account essential structural elements. A score between 50 and 80 means the bridge is “structurally deficient” and needs fixes. A score lower than 50 means that a bridge qualifies for the replacement list.
The Investigative Unit found that in the most recent data from 2013, 472 bridges in the Bay Area were ranked as needing improvements. On an average day, those bridges carry 3 million cars.
Many of those bridges are well known to highway drivers. They include:
- Richmond I-580 bridge
- I-280 and Wolfe road in Cupertino
- CA-13 over I-580 in Berkeley
- I-680 over Monument boulevard in Walnut Creek
- US-101 off-ramp in downtown San Francisco
- Interchange between US-101 and I-280 in San Francisco
235 Bay Area bridges scored lower than 50, meaning they are eligible for replacement.
The I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis was rated 50 when it collapsed without warning in 2007, killing 13 and injuring another 145.
“Of course it’s too high,” Malcom Dougherty, Director of California’s Department of Transportation (Caltrans), told the Investigative Unit.
Still, Dougherty said that these ratings did not indicate that the bridges were necessarily unsafe.
“It is an alarm bell. It is something to pay attention to because it needs to be addressed,” said Dougherty. “It does not mean that it is not safe for the traveling public to go over it.”
Dougherty says Caltrans is watching the bridges on the list and would close any bridge that was unsafe.
The Investigative Unit visited some of the bridges on the list. Many issues were plainly visible, such as exposed and rusted rebar and chunks of concrete missing near the main supports.
One bridge holding I-880 in Oakland had exposed and rusting rebar under a support.
“Today we’re already behind the curve because we haven’t made a significant change in how we invest in transportation for about 20 years, whether you’re talking about the federal side or the state side,” Dougherty said.
To get the Bay’s bridges back up to par, Caltrans estimates it needs $57 billion, plus another $3-5 billion for maintenance.
Now, congress has begun to take notice.
Congressman Jeff Denham, who represents Modesto and serves on the US House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, wrote a letter to the leaders of that committee earlier this week, asking them to prioritize funding for decaying bridges, especially those that are locally owned.
“It’s going to take some real leadership out of Washington DC to really think outside the box to have a long-term solution,” Congressman Denham told the Investigative Unit.
His letter noted that statewide, there are 3,000 bridges with rated as needing repair or replacement.
“The American public should be very concerned about the long-term viability of our highway system, as well as our bridges,” he said. “When you’ve got a bridge that is rated a 2 out of a 100, people should be nervous about traveling across it.”
Congressman Jared Huffman, who represents Marin County, is one of 33 other California congressmen to sign Denham’s letter.
“We fall short each and every year,” Congressman Huffman said. “We’ve seen what happens when you neglect these structurally deficient designations for year after year after year. Eventually things begin to fail, and I don’t want that to happen in my district or in anyone else’s.”