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ARE OUR BRIDGES SAFE? // FIVE AREA BRIDGES FLAGGED AS 'POOR'

LOCAL SPANS: Florida official tries to reassure bay area drivers. DEFECTS? Minnesota officials considered adding steel plates.

Fifty-six of the more than 6,000 bridges operated by the state of Florida are in "poor" condition, according to the state's own ratings.

Five are in the Tampa Bay area.

But the man in charge of them wants to reassure local drivers.

"I can categorically tell you the bridges in the Tampa Bay area are safe for the traveling public," said Pepe Garcia, the state Department of Transportation's structures and facilities engineer for west-central Florida.

As the Interstate 35W collapse in Minnesota brought renewed attention to the condition of America's bridges, Florida reacted Thursday. Gov. Charlie Crist ordered a statewide review of bridge maintenance. Transportation officials said upcoming budget cuts won't affect bridge inspections.

Bridges are inspected every two years, and those that have problems are checked more often until they're repaired or replaced.

At the DOT's local headquarters in North Tampa, Garcia spoke about the five area bridges that are rated "poor," the lowest of five rankings:

-The John's Pass Bridge between Treasure Island and Madeira Beach is the worst one, he said. Erosion from the fast current in the pass has undermined bridge pilings. Hydraulic engineers have temporarily shored it up with large pieces of rock until a new $77-million bridge is finished in 2010.

-At Interstate 275's overpass across Kennedy Boulevard in west Tampa, some support beams were recently repaired, so the bridge should be coming off the "poor" list, Garcia said.

-Inspectors found cracks on the driving surface of two Tampa bridges: I-275's overpass across Cypress Street and the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway's overpass across 22nd Street east of downtown. Those have been fixed or will be, he said.

-Timber pilings will be repaired beneath State Road 39's bridge over the Hillsborough River near Zephyrhills.

Garcia said the bay area's biggest and busiest bridges, such as the Sunshine Skyway, the Howard Frankland and the Gandy, are perfectly safe.

The Skyway has had its share of problems, including corroded columns and worn-out 20-ton expansion joints. But the state has spent more than $15-million fixing it over the last six years.

The Tampa Bay area has had structural problems with other bridges, notably in 2004. That year, elevated lanes on the Crosstown Expressway collapsed when a support column sank; and the state had to demolish and rebuild four cracked columns on the new Memorial Causeway in Clearwater.

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In the wake of Wednesday's disaster, the federal government urged states to inspect all bridges similar to the steel-deck truss bridge that collapsed.

But there aren't any here, Garcia said. Most local bridges are reinforced concrete culverts designed to withstand saltwater corrosion and hurricanes.

"The type of bridge in the Minnesota tragedy is totally different than the bridges we have in our inventory," he said. "It's a different structural system altogether."

The 40-year-old Minneapolis bridge that buckled was classified as structurally deficient, like tens of thousands of bridges across the country.

That includes 276 bridges in Florida, said DOT engineer Robert Robertson.

So what does "structurally deficient" mean?

Such bridges are in need of considerable maintenance, repairs or even replacement, according to federal standards.

"It does not follow from there that you're about to have a collapse," Garcia said. "It's not the same as a patient in critical condition that could die any minute."

He said bridge inspectors look for cracks, corrosion, decaying concrete, misalignment of pieces or unusual vibrations when traffic crosses a span. Divers check underwater foundations.

Shiou-San Kuo, a civil engineering professor at the University of Central Florida, helped the state develop its bridge inspection program a decade ago.

Kuo said the biggest weakness in any bridge review is the underwater inspection. Most problematic, he said, is measuring the effect of "scouring" - the erosion of sand and dirt surrounding supports. After watching over and over the Minnesota bridge collapse on television news, he suspects the core problem was probably the supports.

Florida bridges are assigned one of five ratings, with "fair" and "poor" being the lowest.

About 300 are "fair," which means they may have minor cracking, concrete chipping or scouring, said Tim Lattner, the DOT's statewide director of maintenance.

And 56 are "poor," meaning that more sections of the bridge are deteriorating. Any bridge with a "poor" classification must be fixed or replaced within six years.

The DOT has budgeted $445-million in the coming year to replace or rehabilitate bridges. Lattner said the priority is to take care of existing structures before building anything new.

Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or brassfield@sptimes.com.

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