Five bridges in the nation's capital, including the heavily traveled Frederick Douglass Bridge over the Anacostia River, are categorized by federal highway officials as both “fracture critical” and “structurally deficient,” but District of Columbia officials say they've already fixed one and replaced another.
Nearly 7,800 bridges nationwide fall into both categories, according to an Associated Press analysis of the National Bridge Inventory. That combination of red flags is particularly problematic, according to experts. “Fracture critical” means the bridges don't have redundant protections and are at risk of collapse if a single, vital component fails. “Structurally deficient” means at least one major component of the span has advanced deterioration or other problems that lead inspectors to deem its condition “poor” or worse.
The lists fluctuate frequently, as repairs can move a bridge out of the deficient categories while spans that grow more dilapidated can be put on the lists. There are occasional data-entry errors. There also is considerable lag time between when state transportation officials report data to the federal government and when updates are made to the federal National Bridge Inventory.
According to the district Department of Transportation, the two D.C. bridges that are incorrectly categorized are the 11th Street Bridge carrying Interstate 695 over the Anacostia River, which was replaced this year with the help of federal highway dollars, and a bridge on New York Avenue at First Street Northeast which has been repaired.
The other three bridges still fall into both categories.
The heavily traveled Frederick Douglass Bridge carries South Capitol Street over the Anacostia, past the Nationals Park baseball stadium and in the shadow of the Capitol Dome. The Whitney Young Memorial Bridge carries East Capitol Street over the Anacostia toward RFK Stadium. The third span is a ramp on the outbound Theodore Roosevelt Bridge over the Potomac River that connects to the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
District officials say they have taken temporary measures to shore up those bridges. The city has plans to replace the Douglass Bridge, but funding hasn't been secured. Ronaldo Nicholson, the chief bridge engineer for the area, said replacing the bridge could cost up to $450 million if it's required to be able to open to allow large ships to travel the Anacostia, a rare occurrence. Without that requirement, the cost could be as low as $300 million, he said.
In the meantime, the district's transportation department has inserted “catcher beams” underneath the Douglass Bridge's main horizontal beams to prevent it from falling into the river should one of the major components give way.
Temporary measures to shore up the two remaining problem bridges aren't enough to move them out of the “fracture critical” and “structurally deficient” categories. The transportation department hasn't secured funding for permanent repairs.
Since the federal inventory relies on information from state departments of transportation, state officials have the latest records.