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3 On Your Side: Dangerous Bridges

chris-may-web Chris May
Chris May is anchor of CBS 3’s Eyewitness News at 5, 6 an...
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By Chris May

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Bridges dangerously close to collapse right here in Philadelphia. Eyewitness News has an exclusive first look at a report by a city official worried people will die if nothing is done.

This summer, while drivers crossed Willow Grove Avenue bridge, what was holding them up was corroded steel under the bridge. Video shot by the Philadelphia Controller’s Office shows heavily corroded steel beams under the bridge. Even daylight streamed through a hole.

“We’re in danger of a catastrophic collapse,” said City of Philadelphia Controller Alan Butkovitz.

The CBS 3 I-Team first told you about unsafe bridges three years ago, some too unstable to carry even a single school bus.  Butkovitz says it hasn’t gotten better.

“We’ve got about five bridges that have a near zero rating, that have a less than 5 rating, on a scale of one to 100,” Butkovitz said.

Butkovitz says the bridges with the lowest scores should be closed. He says his team found “third-world conditions” on some bridges:
One bridge on Calumet Street with “steel beams (…) heavily rusted, corroded,” concrete “cracking badly.”
The Bells Mill Road Bridge over the Wissahickon with mortar falling off.

PennDOT says one in four city-owned bridges are structurally deficient. So the controller’s office looked at eight of them. Of those, it’s Willow Grove Avenue Bridge in Chestnut Hill, right over the Saint Martin’s SEPTA regional rail stop, that Butkovitz says is the closest to collapse.

“Wow,” said Bree Strenkowski. “Well, hopefully it’s not when I’m running over it or no one’s driving over it.”

The Willow Grove Avenue Bridge is so structurally unsound, trucks or buses are diverted around. The Streets Department said it added new structural support to this bridge in August. Cars are still allowed.

Doug Olson, who lives near the bridge, said, “I don’t happen to worry about it because it’s supposed to be safe for autos.”

Butkovitz says the Streets Department, which maintains and inspects most city-owned bridges, lacks a system to prioritize repair, or even keep track of how much it spends.

Deferring maintenance saves the city money in the short term. “The city is better off financially if it lets a bridge completely fall apart and applies for funding from the federal government to build a new bridge,” Butkovitz said.

But Butkovitz says it’s a risky move. He says the 2007 collapse of the Minneapolis bridge that killed 13 people could happen here.

“If you cross your fingers too much and you don’t actually take the necessary precautions to make them safe, someday, God forbid, people are going to get killed,” he said.

In a written response to the report, the Streets Department said it’s implementing a computer tracking system for bridge maintenance. It says it needs more funding for better bridge maintenance.

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