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BRIDGE SOUNDS WAKEUP CALL

Engineers say we need to heed the groans of aging bridges, highways, electrical grids and water lines.

The collapse last week of a Minnesota bridge into the Mississippi River was a horrible tragedy, and yet another warning about the dire state of the nation's crumbling infrastructure.

Last month, a New York City steam pipe exploded and killed a passer-by. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the levees protecting New Orleans. Four years ago, an electrical blackout paralyzed the Northeast.

"I thought the wakeup call would've been the blackout or Katrina," said Patrick Natale, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers. "But I fear this incident will be like those. Time will pass and we'll forget."

For now, the bridge collapse has aimed a spotlight on the aging network of bridges, highways, electrical grids and water lines that allow the nation and the Tampa Bay area to function.

Unfortunately, flaws aren't usually detected until something goes awry.

Like in 2003, when officials shut down the Treasure Island Causeway drawbridge after the state scored it a lowly 3.3 on a scale of 100. Or in 2004, when more than 21-million gallons of sewage spilled into a Sulphur Springs neighborhood and toward the Hillsborough River.

"We haven't totally ignored our infrastructure, but we have a ways to go," said Steve Daignault, Tampa's public works director. "At a time when government is being asked to cut funds, everyone needs to remember we have a huge system that needs help and maintenance."

The American Society of Civil Engineers, which represents more than 139,000 civil engineers worldwide, concluded in 2005 that it would cost $1.6-trillion over five years to upgrade the nation's infrastructure.

But most of its recommendations for financing the upgrades, including an increase in the federal gas tax, have been ignored.

"I'd like to know why infrastructure isn't on the political agenda," Natale said.

One reason may be its sheer size, which can be hard to comprehend. Or maybe it's because infrastructure needs are determined by a bewildering array of federal, state, county, city and special district governments, all of which keep separate and often incomplete maintenance records.

Hillsborough backlog

It doesn't help that the systems that carry stormwater, drinking water and sewage are buried underground. New development can overwhelm the system with an influx of users, causing spills or floods.

"The most challenging type of infrastructure is the type that's buried," said Bob Gordon, Hillsborough County's public works director. "It's hard to check the quality of it and find out if it's rusted or corroded."

To ease flooding, Hillsborough has a master plan of 168 drainage projects costing nearly $400-million. The county spends about $5-million a year on the plan. At that pace, it would take 80 years to complete all of the projects, Gordon said.

But none of the projects was included in a five-year-plan approved by county commissioners last week that will cost $500-million. Most of that money will be spent on road expansions that will allow for more development.

St. Petersburg assured

Barring a major hurricane, St. Petersburg officials are confident their sewage system, bridges and roadways will continue to run smoothly.

Since the city began keeping tabs on its infrastructure in 2000, sewer overflows have drastically decreased and the percentage of bridges rated for replacement has remained at a steady rate of about 9 percent.

"I have no real concerns," said internal services administrator Michael Connors, who oversees the city's infrastructure maintenance. "We have dedicated reserve funding to keep our system in good shape."

But if a major storm hits the city, all bets are off. St. Petersburg would likely be swamped with major repairs.

"It could be anything or everything depending on how long the hurricane might last," Connors said. "One bridge could cost $40-million to replace."

Pinellas uses Penny

In March, Pinellas voters approved an extension of the Penny for Pinellas sales tax, which helps pay for infrastructure repairs. That greatly relieved Ivan Fernandez, the division director of the county's engineering services. Pinellas had been falling behind on road resurfacing, which costs about $2-million every year. By 2011, the county expects to be spending three times that much.

"We needed that money," Fernandez said. "With what we spend now, we are fighting to stay ahead of the curve. Time works against you. Once the years go by, the infrastructure rears its ugly head if you don't make the repairs."

Spills taught Tampa

Tampa residents learned that the hard way when the city's sewer system began failing a few years ago. In 2003, a corroded pipe burst on Davis Islands, dumping 2-million gallons of water from toilets and sinks into a channel that feeds into Hillsborough Bay. That and a series of other spills prompted a rate increase.

Since 2004, Tampa has increased sewer rates and created a stormwater fee to help pay for upgrades and replacement of pipes that are 50 to 100 years old.

That fee, established at about $12 a year in 2004, was tripled in 2005 to help fund a $60-million plan to ease flooding.

On Thursday, the City Council will consider doubling water rates over the next five years, with most of the increased revenue going to pipe replacement.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Cristina Silva and Janet Zink contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

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