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Boxer says state needs tougher look at bridges

The senator urges transportation officials to produce a clear assessment of immediate repair needs.

August 16, 2007|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- Despite new assurances that California's bridges are safe, some elected officials said Wednesday that they were worried the structures had not been given the thorough and frank appraisal or repairs needed.

"We have not done in this state a thorough enough job in making sure our bridges are structurally safe," state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez said at a hearing called by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. "If they are not structurally safe, we need to be honest about that."

Nuñez, a Los Angeles Democrat, said he was concerned that state transportation officials might be on the defensive about safety after the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed at least nine people.

Boxer, a Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said she convened the hearing to determine whether California had emergency bridge repairs that required immediate federal assistance.

But "right now, I can't tell you I am 100% confident that I have all the information I need," Boxer said after the hearing.

She urged state officials to produce a frank assessment of immediate repair needs, and voiced concern that inspectors had designated 1,620 bridges in the state "structurally deficient."

"We've got to help you get these structurally deficient bridges sound," Boxer said. "We need to be cautious here and not overreact, but to do very thorough inspections."

Bill Kempton, director of the California Department of Transportation, said the federal government's designation "structurally deficient" was "inflammatory" and should be changed.

"Our bridges in California are safe," he said. "That doesn't mean they are not in need of repair."

Last week, Caltrans said it had identified 228 bridges that should be at the top of the list for repairs although they posed no danger of collapse. But they are priorities for fixes based on such factors as structural problems and how much traffic they have.

Those spans include the interchange of the 5 and 60 freeways in Boyle Heights, the 5-10-101 split in downtown Los Angeles and the Santa Monica Freeway viaduct in downtown L.A.

Kempton said Wednesday that since the Aug. 1 Minneapolis disaster, the 69 California bridges with similar designs had been inspected and no significant problems were found. He also said there was a "robust" repair program underway.

Kempton said the federal government needed to step up its role in maintaining and repairing bridges and interstate freeways.

Boxer agreed that more federal funding was needed for infrastructure. She did not rule out the possibility of increasing federal gas taxes to help pay for some of the work.

"I think it's something that should be on the table, but it's not the only thing I'm considering," Boxer said.

Others who said the state had not spent what was needed to upgrade bridges and roads included Jim Ghielmetti, chairman of the California Transportation Commission. He said the state had taken its transportation system for granted.

"We have done so at our own peril," he said.

Nuñez said he wants additional assurances that enough is being done.

"I know that Caltrans has said that all of California's bridges are in good shape," Nuñez said, "but given the fact that we have a lot of movement in our earth in California, I'm not totally satisfied that we have all of the answers to the questions that have been raised."

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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