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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Dozens of major bridges lack shields to block wayward ships

The Lewis and Clark Bridge on the Columbia River between Longview, Wash., and Rainier, Ore., on April 4.  (GRANT HINDSLEY/New York Times)
By Mike Baker, Anjali Singhvi, Helmuth Rosales, David W. Chen and Elena Shao New York TImes

The Lewis and Clark Bridge has towered above the Columbia River for nearly a century, its rugged half-mile truss serving as a gateway for logging trucks and beach vacationers crossing between Washington and Oregon.

Decades ago, to protect against wayward vessels that could threaten the structure, crews installed timber shields around the bridge piers that rise up out of the water. But even as the cargo ships chugging up the Pacific Northwest’s largest river began to grow in size, the timbers rotted away, leaving the bridge vulnerable to disaster.

“If a ship hits one of those piers, it’s gone,” said Jerry Reagor, a semiretired contractor who lives near the bridge and has spent years pressing transportation officials to install new protections. The state views the risk of calamity as low and the cost of preventing it to be high.

Bridges across the country carry similar deficiencies. At 309 major bridges on navigable waterways in the U.S., inspections in recent years have found protection systems around bridge foundations that were deteriorating, potentially outdated or nonexistent, leaving the structures perilously exposed to ship strikes.

A New York Times analysis of federal data and shipping traffic found dozens of these vulnerable bridges spanning waterways that serve as corridors for large vessels – around places such as Boston, New Orleans and Philadelphia.

The review identified 193 bridges that each carry 10,000 vehicles or more a day that have no protections installed around their piers.

The potential risk became starkly apparent last month when a cargo vessel appeared to lose power and struck a pier of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, causing much of the 1.6-mile structure to collapse into the water and killing six people. But the Times review showed that bridges across the country have suffered similar catastrophic failures in recent decades, in places including St. Petersburg, Florida; Mobile, Alabama; South Padre Island, Texas; and Webbers Falls, Oklahoma.

Those costly and sometimes deadly disasters have brought calls to enhance bridge protections. The Biden administration in 2021 pushed through legislation that will provide $40 billion to repair or replace bridges across the country. But the repairs are targeted at only about a third of an estimated 43,000 bridges deemed to be in poor condition. And states have struggled to pay for multimillion-dollar safety improvements, constantly balancing the cost against what may be seen as an isolated risk of disaster.

Department of Transportation officials in Washington state have said they will be watching the Baltimore investigation to determine whether new pier protections on the Lewis and Clark Bridge might be needed but cautioned that the state has limited funds.

“This would be an improvement project that would cost tens of millions of dollars,” said Kelly Hanahan, a department spokeswoman.

Some states have focused less on upgrading their bridges and instead are working on plans to evacuate them quickly in the event of a ship strike or other problem. Some are concentrating on improving navigation and tugboat protocols to lessen the likelihood of collisions.

Others are rolling the dice.

Shortfalls near key ports

Vulnerable bridges are standing in some of the busiest shipping waterways. One example: the Crescent City Connection in New Orleans.

The bridge has two spans, one built in 1958 and another in 1988. Both were completed before the adoption of more modern standards to mitigate the risk of a large vessel collision.

A pair of private engineering researchers started looking at the bridge and two others nearby in the 1990s after a series of vessel accidents, including some involving ships that lost power, as was most likely the case with the ship in Baltimore. In findings published for their peers, they found the protection systems around the bridges “do not have the strength and energy absorption capacity to affect the consequences of major vessel collisions,” and that the bridges’ foundations might not survive a head-on collision.

The Times analysis found bridges with similar documented flaws at a variety of other big ports. In Florida, where the Dolphin Expressway carries more than 50,000 vehicles per day across the Miami River, the bridge supports are protected by what inspectors have described as a deteriorating system. The transportation agency managing the bridge said it is working to replace the protection system.

Preparing for evacuations

Many of the deficiencies found in bridges outside of the nation’s major ports are also a result of deteriorating barriers around the piers. It was a problem that inspectors identified at 98 major bridges – those carrying at least 10,000 vehicles per day.

In many cases, local officials are looking at alternatives to expensive new construction to help lower the risk.

In 2015, a 600-foot freighter lost propulsion as it traveled along the Delaware River between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Seconds before the vessel reached the Burlington-Bristol Bridge, it crashed into the riverbank instead, averting disaster.

The span is one of several along the Delaware River – including the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge and the Ben Franklin Bridge, both gateways to Philadelphia – where inspectors found deteriorated protection systems around bridge piers.

Michael McCarron, the director of operations at the Burlington County Bridge Commission, said repair work this year will involve some attention to the bridge’s protection system.

At the same time, the county is focusing on how to evacuate the bridges in the event of a looming collision, using tower operators who are in constant communication with vessels and a police force always at the ready.

“Time is of the essence,” he said.

Farther down the river, at the Delaware Memorial Bridge, crews are building one of the nation’s most advanced protection systems. That $93 million project includes concrete “dolphins,” each 80 feet in diameter and rooted 45 feet deep in the riverbed, that will guide any troubled ships away from the bridge.

After a freighter knocked down Florida’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1980, killing 35 people, a rebuilt span there also included a network of concrete islands for protection.

Crashes on inland waterways

Just four days after the Baltimore bridge collapse, a barge that drifted off course on the Arkansas River rammed into a highway bridge near Sallisaw, Oklahoma.

The bridge survived, thanks in part to a more robust pier design that a bridge engineer said made the structure capable of handling a collision. Just up the river in 2002, freight barges struck a pier supporting Interstate 40, knocking a section into the river and killing 14 people.

While inland routes such as the Arkansas River, the Missouri River and the Mississippi River do not get the larger container ships seen at coastal ports, they regularly carry barges large enough to take out a bridge.

Many of those bridges do not have protection systems, inspectors have found, including the Sherman Minton Bridge that connects Indiana and Kentucky, the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge in Tennessee, and the Robert C. Byrd Bridge linking West Virginia and Ohio.

And the risks associated with large container vessels are also moving into new areas of the country, as smaller coastal ports take steps to accommodate them.

In Louisiana, large cargo vessels now make their way up the Mississippi River, passing under two bridges that have been found during inspections to have flawed protection systems: the Veterans Memorial Bridge near Gramercy and the Sunshine Bridge a little farther upriver in St. James Parish.

In New York, the Mid-Hudson Bridge near Poughkeepsie now sees a small but steady stream of large ships passing under its span.

John Lipscomb, a longtime patrol boat captain and a vice president of Riverkeeper, an environmental group, recalled a 2012 incident in which a 600-foot-long oil tanker ran aground near the Port of Albany.

“Accidents happen here at home, and in light of the Baltimore accident, we should be revisiting our existing bridges and determining whether they are safe,” he said. “A damaged bridge has enormous consequences. There’s the potential for high, high risk to the environment.”

Protections may be lacking

The Francis Scott Key Bridge that was destroyed in Baltimore was officially listed in the National Bridge Inventory as having a protection system in place. But the shields were limited to concrete islands that were much smaller than more modern systems.

Now, even on bridges deemed to have functioning protection systems, it is unclear whether those protections are sufficient.

A good example is the 4-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge, also in Maryland.

The bridge is “not protected the way it should be,” said Vijaya Gopu, a civil engineering professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

“Maybe it’s protected in a very trivial fashion like the Key Bridge, but I didn’t realize it does not have a robust protection system like dolphins or some rock island,” he said. “That’s something they have to do right away.”

The Maryland Department of Transportation said it was “evaluating potential short-term and long-term mitigation strategies” for the Bay Bridge. The department also said it would “strongly consider” any recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation in Baltimore, where preliminary findings are expected later this month.

Back in the Pacific Northwest, farther down the Columbia River, the Astoria-Megler Bridge has shields in place to deflect ships away from the piers, and inspectors have found them to be functioning. But vessel sizes have increased in recent years, state officials acknowledged.

Capt. Jeremy Nielsen, president of the Columbia River Pilots, whose mariners are hired to guide ships through the sometimes treacherous waters of the lower Columbia and Willamette rivers, said he has concern over both bridges, given that ships can and do break down on the river.

The shields on the Astoria-Megler Bridge are capable of deflecting smaller ships navigating the river, he said. “The structure that’s there is not going to protect against a larger vessel.”