A White House report estimates one in four bridges in the U.S. needs significant repairs or can't handle today's traffic.
President Barack Obama is expected to sign a temporary fix this week to keep money flowing to the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road and bridge construction and maintenance throughout the country and here in Maryland.
In his 21 year career as an inspector with the Maryland State Highway Administration , Edward Swift has been above and below many of the Maryland's State Highway Administration's 2,500 bridges.
"We have a 100 percent hands-on policy, so we'll touch every part of this beam, every part of this bridge," Swift said. "Here, I'm beating through the rust, section loss, make sure there's no holes."
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To the untrained eye, Swift said bridges often appear to be in worse shape than they actually are.
"Just because it's rusty doesn't mean that it's bad," he said. "So a lot of people have the tendency to look and say, 'Oh, all that planking there, it's bad, it's in bad shape.' They don't understand that that's for their protection."
Federal law requires bridges to be inspected at least once every two years. But the bridge Swift is inspecting, a portion of the Interstate 695 Inner Loop over Benson Avenue is on a yearly cycle. It's one of the 81 bridges maintained by the SHA labeled as structurally deficient. The term means the bridge is safe to drive on, but at least one of the bridge's three main elements is in poor condition and needs to be replaced.
"We have one of the lowest structurally deficient bridge lists in the country at only 4 percent," said Charlie Gischlar, an SHA spokesman. "The ones that are [structurally deficient] are either in construction, funded for construction or in active design, so we're way ahead of the ball here."
The two most heavily traveled bridges on Maryland's structurally deficient list are in Baltimore County. They each hover around 190,000 cars daily. The I-695 Inner Loop bridge over Leeds Avenue in Arbutus has deteriorating concrete. It's in the design phase and is scheduled to be repaired later this year. The second most heavily traveled bridge is I-695 over Milford Mill Road in Pikesville. That bridge is currently undergoing repairs to its riding surface and concrete supports.
"We wouldn't let anyone drive over something with a serious issue," Gischlar said. "We don't want it to get to that position. That's why it goes on that list, so we can start aligning a design for it and ultimately funding."
Roughly the other half of the state's nearly 5300 bridges are inspected and maintained by each county or Baltimore city. Out of that group Baltimore County has the most.
"The biggest thing is probably the logistics," said Kevin Sabolcik, chief of the structural design section for Baltimore County's Department of Public Works. "We do have nearly 700 bridges, they all need to be inspected."
Overall, six percent of Maryland's bridges are labeled structurally deficient, which puts it among the ten states with the lowest percentages of structurally deficient bridges. Pennsylvania has the highest percentage of bridges in need of repair at 23 percent.
"I think our bridges are in a pretty good condition overall," Sabolcik said. "We do have a very, very good inspection program. We have a very good maintenance program."
But even with a thorough inspection and maintenance program, problems can arise unexpectedly.
Like in the case of westbound I-70 over the Patapsco River. Earlier this summer, state officials shut it down for emergency repairs when a painting crew discovered a crack in one of the bridge's beams.
"For safety purposes, the overwhelming concern for safety, we shut it down and fixed it and reopened it when we were satisfied when it was safe," Gischlar said.
It's also an example of how one observant person can lead to a major discovery.
"We always follow up on any kind of observation that's made," Sabolcik said. "We've actually found some bridges by citizens voicing a concern over something that we didn't even know was in our inventory."
Another category of bridges are labeled "functionally obsolete." Maryland has nearly 1100 bridges that fall under this category. These bridges are structurally sound, but are outdated for current use. For example, the Bay Bridge is considered functionally obsolete because it often has more cars than it was originally designed to handle.
As far as the counties in our area, Anne Arundel County has the lowest percentage of structurally deficient
bridges in the state at less than two percent. On the other hand, Cecil County is among the highest, with more than 10.5 percent. You can find a break down of bridge statistics county-by-county here .