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The road to safer I-75 bridges

The state Department of Transportation needs to widen its view about two narrow bridges on Interstate 75 in Sumter County.

The bridges, which cross Lake Panasoffkee, have been the site of more than 50 automobile accidents in the past five years, and four people have died there in the past three months.

Although it is impossible to affix blame for every crash, there should be no doubt the bridges' design contributes to many accidents. Nearly a mile long, the spans virtually have no shoulders. A vehicle that swerves even slightly can easily enter another's lane or bounce off the 3-foot-high guardrail, both of which can be disastrous when traveling at 70 mph or more. At those speeds, motorists who fear the narrowing roadway worsen the problem by braking, while others pass without recognizing the increased danger.

The DOT has acknowledged the problem by improving signage near the bridges and by painting a solid white line on the roadway to discourage passing. But the inevitable solution is to widen the bridges so they have the standard 10-foot-wide shoulders.

That is a costly prospect, with a price tag approaching $18-million. Besides, DOT officials contend, the relatively small number of cars that use the bridges each day (34,000) does not merit the expenditure. However, that appears to be a compelling argument for, not against, rebuilding: Even with fewer cars traveling the rural bridges, it remains a high-crash area.

At a minimum, the DOT should undertake a comprehensive traffic study to determine ways it may be able to improve motorists' safety, with special attention to prohibiting passing on the bridges. The Florida Highway Patrol also should step up enforcement of the speed limit in the area.

The DOT has declared the bridges "functionally obsolete," a designation that ranks second in priority funding behind "structurally deficient." However, a recent shift in policy allows the DOT to use surplus federal funds from the deficient category to update obsolete bridges. The results of the safety study could justify making the Lake Panasoffkee spans a priority, although it still could take 10 years or more to complete.

The quickest solution to the problem would be for the Legislature to appropriate the $17.8-million, which could get the job done in less than five years.

Regardless of which option the DOT or the Legislature chooses, the decision should be based on safety, not money or geography.