State checks Beaver bridge

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HARRISBURG -- The state Department of Transportation began a two-part effort yesterday to bolster public confidence in Pennsylvania bridges.

Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
A train passes beneath the Koppel Bridge, which carries Route 351 over the Beaver River in North Sewickley, Beaver County. The steel deck truss bridge, which is rated structurally deficient, was inspected by the state yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.

Officials began inspecting a structurally deficient deck truss bridge in Beaver County, and PennDOT Secretary Allen Biehler changed his mind and decided to release structural-safety ratings for all 25,000 PennDOT bridges statewide.

PennDOT District 11 officials began to take a hard look at the Koppel Bridge in Beaver County, one of several bridges of the same design as the one in Minneapolis that collapsed last week.

Mr. Biehler has said all 54 steel deck truss bridges in the state -- 28 owned by PennDOT and 26 others owned by cities or counties -- will be inspected by the end of November.

The Koppel Bridge is getting an early look because it is classified as structurally deficient -- not unsafe, but in need of costly repairs or even replacement. It carries Route 351 over the Beaver River.

Also, Mr. Biehler told the House's State Government Committee that structural safety ratings of all 25,000 PennDOT-owned bridges would be released within a few weeks. The information will be posted on the department's Web site, www.dot.state.pa.us.

For the 54 steel deck truss bridges, however, the ratings should be available in about a week, he said.

The rankings range from 0, the most unsafe category, to 9, the highest rating. Mr. Biehler said the process of compiling the ratings is complicated.

"It's a very large computer file that we have to look at and make sure it's understandable," he said.

There are three ratings for each bridge: One number rates the deck surface; another rates the superstructure; and the third rates the piers and columns that hold up the superstructure.

Of the 25,000 PennDOT-owned bridges, about 800 in the worst condition already have lane or weight restrictions or have been closed.

In addition to PennDOT's bridges, there are another 7,000 owned by counties or municipalities. Mr. Biehler said he'd have to check into whether those ratings can be released.

In April, PennDOT refused to release bridge-rating data requested by the Beaver County Times. It was concerned that drivers might become unnecessarily fearful if they saw engineering data that wasn't readily understandable, Mr. Biehler said.

But with the great public interest in bridge safety, especially since the collapse of the Minnesota span, Mr. Biehler has reconsidered and decided the time is right to make such information public.


Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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