Local officials' concerns about safety heightened

York County's bridges are safe for travel and not at risk of a collapse, said state highway officials Thursday, responding to questions following the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis.

Lee Floyd, a S.C. Department of Transportation bridge maintenance engineer, said bridges in York County are inspected for safety at least every two years, and some annually. While some spans have been rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, none are an immediate danger, he said.

DOT: Safety is bottom line

"Our number one objective when inspecting bridges is safety, pure and simple," said Floyd. "It's an ongoing process. Our guys are on the job every day of the week."

On Thursday, The Herald requested a list of all structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges in York County and their locations, but the data was not released by DOT officials before press deadlines Thursday evening.

AAA Carolinas conducted a bridge analysis earlier this year and found that none of the state's five most dangerous bridges are in York County. The survey also indicated that none of the state's bridges pose an immediate danger.

Limits on deficient bridges

Floyd said certified inspectors look at multiple criteria, from bridge footings under the ground to the concrete surface, and compare it to federal standards when analyzing bridge safety.

The criteria are rated on a scale of one to nine, with nine being the best. If any criteria falls below a four rating, the bridge is deemed structurally deficient and placed on a list for repairs.

"But that doesn't mean the bridge isn't safe," Floyd said. "It means you may have the beginning of a problem or a problem in the future. It's a flag that is thrown up."

Floyd said many bridges found to be unsafe are issued load restrictions and kept open. Others that pose an imminent danger are closed until repairs are completed, he said.

"As long as people adhere to that restriction, the bridge is safe," he said, adding that restrictions are posted in clear sight before access to the bridge.

Most weight limits only apply to large trucks, and the average car is within limits, he said.

U.S. 21 bridge "obsolete"

Floyd said the bridge that poses one of the most immediate concerns in York County is the U.S. 21 bridge spanning the Catawba River. He said the bridge isn't at risk of a collapse, but it is "functionally obsolete" because of its narrow width. He said it is scheduled for replacement within the next two or three years.

"We've been pushing to have that bridge replaced," he said. "It's on the list, so hopefully it will happen soon."

Floyd said the narrow lanes are a potential danger during heavy traffic flow, a common situation on the highway linking Rock Hill and Fort Mill.

More money needed

Another concern facing highway officials is the amount of state and federal funds available for bridge maintenance. Floyd said the DOT spent $10 million on bridge maintenance in 2006.

But he estimates $45 million annually is needed to maintain the bridges at an optimum pace. Floyd said most of the funding comes from the federal government, and only about 20 percent comes from the state's pocket.

"It's a nationwide issue," he said. "We have nowhere near the funding we need."

In light of Wednesday's tragic collapse of the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, S.C. Secretary of Transportation nominee Buck Limehouse Jr. on Thursday assured motorists that bridges in the Palmetto State are safe despite funding setbacks.

"South Carolina has a critical need for funding in terms of maintaining the bridges and highways in our state, but we are doing everything possible to make sure that all bridges can be used safely," Limehouse said in a prepared statement. "Safety is our highest priority, and no one in South Carolina will travel over a bridge this unsafe to use."