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Our View: Maintenance is a bridge too far

Updated: November 7, 2013 6:03AM



Federal data released recently identifies 189 bridges in Illinois as both “fracture critical” and “structurally deficient,” a combination that experts say is seriously problematic.

“Problematic” is a technical engineering term that means “we warned you the thing might fall down.”

Every time a major bridge fractures or falls, we wonder why it wasn’t fixed. That’s easy. We spend money on disaster preparedness but mostly after the disaster.

We are, by our nature, regrettably fiscal procrastinators on large objects that seem substantial and safe from the outside. Even if science and logic suggest that we should maintain the structural integrity of bridges, we always presume we’ll have enough time and money later to address the problem.

Money is spent on everything else first, especially in a state with a budget as fractured as its bridges.

Illinois’ at-risk bridges include the spans over the Des Plaines River south of Joliet on Interstate 80, one of the most important transcontinental highways. The westbound and eastbound bridges were built in 1965 and now carry an average of 37,000 vehicles each day.

The Little Calumet River and Calumet Sag Channel bridges into Blue Island are similarly in need of extensive repair, according to the government.

Compared with the rest of the states, Illinois is doing relatively well, coming in 35th with 8.5 percent of bridges structurally deficient. For comparison, Pennsylvania tops the list with 26.5 percent of its bridges needing repair.

In 2011, Cook County had 162 structurally deficient bridges, 9.9 percent of its total. On average, 3.4 million vehicles pass over the county’s deficient bridges each year.

The main issue is money. It takes hundreds of millions of dollars to replace a major bridge. The federal fuel tax, a main source of bridge repair funds, has not been raised since 1993.

Meanwhile, politicians who control tight budgets are more keen to take credit for new facilities. Bridge maintenance is too mundane.

Think of Springfield’s endless political dithering over budgets and pensions the next time you speed over an Illinois bridge on the endangered list.



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