More than 100 of Fairfield County's bridges are "structurally deficient" and need serious repairs, including several spans on Interstate 95 that carry more than 100,000 people daily, according to a newly released national study of federal bridge statistics.
Two of the problem bridges are in Westport: the I-95 span over the Saugatuck River at Exit 17 and the Merritt Parkway bridge between Exits 41 and 42.
Other nearby bridges in need of repair include the I-95 bridges between Exits 15 and 16 in Norwalk and near Exit 8 in Stamford.
"This is one of our biggest challenges, but I am 100 percent confident the state can and will keep all the bridges safe and the public will never be on an unsafe bridge," state Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick said in response to the report.
The term "structurally deficient" is applied to bridges that the National Bridge Inventory evaluation system gives a rating of "poor" or worse to the deck of the bridge, the superstructure underpinning the roadway deck or the substructure, which includes piers as well as columns and crossbars that hold up the substructure and deck. These are bridges that require significant "maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement," according to the report.
The analysis was done by Transportation for America, a coalition of transportation, housing and other advocacy groups, which reviewed the federal National Bridge Inventory. An interactive map of all of the bridges found to be deficient is available on the group's website, www.t4America.org.
Nursick said the deficient bridges do not compromise public safety immediately. The "structurally deficient" category is a serious concern, he said, but does not mean a bridge is unsafe for travel, though repairs are needed to restore the bridge's original load standards when new.
"We take this very seriously and we want to sleep well at night knowing we did everything possible to assure the public is safe," Nursick said. "Know that this is something that the DOT does not and will not compromise on."
The I-95 span in Westport cited in the report was built in 1957 and has average daily traffic volume of about 124,800 vehicles, while the Merritt bridge in town was constructed in 1938 and carries 60,800 vehicles on an average day/
All state-maintained bridges are inspected biannually, while bridges flagged with structural problems awaiting repairs are monitored more frequently to keep ahead of worsening problems, he said.
There are also 1,286 bridges in the state owned and maintained by towns and cities, 193 of them which are structurally deficient, Nursick said.
Nursick said the bridges will only continue to age, so figuring out how to fund repairs will only become more urgent, he said. The average age of bridges in Connecticut is now 52, according to the state DOT.
"As our bridges age, as with any infrastructure, it is going to require more maintenance, more rehabilitation and more reconstruction activity," Nursick said.
Across the state, about 10 percent of the state's 4,196 bridges are structurally deficient, the report found. That number has grown 4.1 percent since 2011, when the group found 383 state bridges to have serious structural problems.
Pennsylvania had the most deficient bridges, with 26.5 percent of its bridges in serious need of repair. Nevada has the fewest, at 2.2 percent of its bridges. In Washington, which recently experienced a major bridge collapse on Interstate 5, only 5.1 percent of the bridges are unsound.
Transportation for America recommended in the report that Congress prioritize finding ways to raise additional billions to ensure the Highway Trust Fund can support repairs for aging bridges before their conditions worsen, and also tailor legislation to ensure that most bridges remain eligible for federal repair money.
David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation for America, said federal funding for bridge maintenance continues to shrink.
"We've had a functional cut in the funds available from the federal government, particularly for locally owned bridges," Goldberg said. "What's really of concern is that the gasoline tax is sinking and come into a situation where bridges have to compete for funds with other transportation projects."
The nation's current two-year surface transportation bill, approved last summer, put $19 billion of federal funds to keep the trust fund solvent through 2014 and offset falling federal gas tax revenues, but also excluded thousands of previously eligible bridges from qualifying for repair funds through the bill's duration, Goldberg said.
The Stamford-based Regional Plan Association's planner, Amanda Kennedy, said Connecticut and other states will likely need to pay a higher share of the costs of major infrastructure projects in the coming decades.
The number of structurally deficient bridges in the state highlights the need for the federal government to boost funding for replacing and restoring bridges and other existing infrastructure, she said. The current shorter term of the surface transportation bill approved last summer assures that a congressional debate over a longer-term spending plan to repair deteriorating bridges and boost mass transit will take place in 2014, she said.
"But it's not just that bridges are structurally deficient, but that there are major big take-out items on the horizon, like the Q Bridge, which make it harder to get smaller projects done in a timely manner," Kennedy said. "But within the next few years, there will be another federal debate and an opportunity to come up with different ways to fund these projects."