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Wickenden Street ramp among structurally deficient RI bridges

The U.S. Senate last week approved $15.2 million to improve Rhode Island's bridges in an amendment to a highway bill that would allocate an extra $1 billion to bridges across the nation. About half of Rhode Island's bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete according to federal standards - of Rhode Island's 764 bridges, 175 are deficient and about 220 are obsolete.

All states receive federal funding annually for bridge renovations, but the Aug. 1 collapse of a Minnesota bridge into the Mississippi River drew national attention to infrastructure safety and prompted lawmakers to increase bridge funding for fiscal year 2008.

Rhode Island received $68 million to replace and fix bridges in 2007 and $57 million in 2006 through the same legislation.

There are 24 structurally deficient bridges and 53 functionally obsolete bridges in Providence, according to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation.

Ten of the deficient bridges will be replaced when the city relocates the I-195 highway to free up valuable Providence real estate.

One of the city's 149 bridges is a structurally deficient I-195 ramp on Wickenden Street, just south of Brown's campus. But the ramp's deficiency doesn't mean it will buckle under your car the next time you drive to Newport.

So-called structurally deficient and obsolete bridges are not necessarily unsafe, said Kazem Farhoumand, deputy chief engineer at the Rhode Island Department of Transportation.

When the department's engineers examine Rhode Island bridges every year, they use federal standards to assess the bridges. A bridge that does not meet federal standards because of "excessive deterioration" is then deemed structurally deficient.

"That by no means means the bridge is unsafe," Farhoumand said. "But you have to keep an eye on it." When engineers make their rounds, they review previous problems with a bridge and then ask themselves, "Did it get a lot worse or did it get a little worse?" before making decisions about repairing the bridge, he said.

Similarly, functionally obsolete bridges aren't necessarily unsafe. "People see functionally obsolete and they think you have to knock the bridge down," Farhoumand said. Some of the bridges that pass over Route 95 in the Providence area are only 14 feet above the highway, though federal inspection codes mandate a 15-foot clearance. But driving under the bridge is safe.

"In a perfect world (the 15-foot clearance is) what you want to have, but unfortunately we don't have a perfect world," Farhoumand said.

He compared obsolete bridges to less-prized apartments. "Everyone desires to have a two bedroom apartment, but one bedroom may work for most people."

The Senate's measure is part of an amendment to a transportation, housing and urban development appropriations spending bill. The bill must be approved and then reconciled with similar legislation from the U.S. House of Representatives before being signed into law.

"We have hundreds of bridges across Rhode Island and we need to make sure they are structurally safe and in good condition," Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a press release. "The funding in this bill will help state and local governments maintain our bridges, build roads, reduce congestion and improve air quality."

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