|Bridge number 53-0062, the Manhattan Beach Undercrossing on PCH, built in 1930.|
First, let’s be clear: No Caltrans bridge has ever collapsed due to neglect. Ever. Which isn’t to say that bridges don’t collapse. They do. They’re consumed by floods, brought down by fire, leveled by earthquakes, and hit by trucks, but in California, bridges do NOT collapse because they're not maintained. In large part, that flawless record is made possible by a special unit created by the department in 1927 to ensure the safety and reliability of the state’s bridge inventory.
|Sr. Bridge Engineer Bing Wu at work.|
If, during the course of an inspection, inspectors find any issue that could compromise the bridge’s structural integrity, they have the power to do whatever it takes to protect public safety, including closing the bridge or posting the structure for weight limitations until repairs are made.
Now, about those scary terms. Some of California’s older bridges are in good shape but functionally obsolete. This term, which is a federal designation, tells us more about the age of a bridge than its structural integrity. Functionally obsolete simply means that the bridge was built using different standards than are used today—like bridge number 53-0062 in the photo above. For example, a functionally obsolete bridge may have no shoulders and narrow lanes. Would we build a bridge like this today? No. Is it unsafe? No.
Some of our bridges are also structurally deficient. Like the label functionally obsolete, structurally deficient doesn’t mean a bridge is unsafe. Rather, it indicates that a bridge is in need of maintenance, such as filling minor cracks or repainting. These are conditions that would be noted during a bridge inspection and later fixed. In the meantime, the bridge can be safely used by the motoring public.
So the next time you hear or read that a bridge is functionally obsolete or structurally deficient, remember: the bridge is NOT unsafe. Typically, it means that it’s an older bridge or has some minor maintenance issues that can be handled fairly easily and inexpensively. If the bridge is open, it’s safe. Traverse California's bridges with confidence!