Responding to a federal appeal, Maryland's transportation secretary ordered last night new inspections of 10 Maryland bridges of a design similar to the Minnesota bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River on Wednesday evening.
Secretary John D. Porcari assured residents that the state's bridges are sound. "No Marylander should be concerned about the safety of our bridges," he said at a news conference earlier in the day. "When our bridges need repair, it's a priority. We make it happen."
Federal reports show that the overall percentage of Maryland bridges ranked as "structurally deficient" - a classification also applied to the failed Minnesota bridge - is significantly lower than the national average.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun provided an incorrect location for a bridge on Route 32 in Carroll County that Maryland will re-inspect. The Route 32 bridge crosses the Liberty Reservoir.
The Sun regrets the error.
The Maryland bridges that will get a new look include both spans of the Bay Bridge and the Interstate 95 and U.S. 40 crossings of the Susquehanna River. State officials insisted that the bridges are safe and that they are acting out of "an abundance of caution."
Porcari's decision came after the Federal Highway Administration urged states last night to conduct immediate inspections of steel deck truss bridges like the Interstate 35W span that failed Wednesday night, killing at least four people. Officials fear that many more bodies will be found in their cars under the wreckage.
"Out of an abundance of caution, Secretary Porcari directed the State Highway Administration and the Maryland Transportation Authority to reinspect the state's 10 truss bridges," said state Transportation Department spokesman Jack Cahalan.
That statement came hours after Gov. Martin O'Malley and state transportation officials moved to dispel Maryland's anxiety over images of the Minneapolis wreckage.
At a news conference at the State Highway Administration operations center in Anne Arundel County, O'Malley expressed sorrow over the fatal collapse in Minneapolis but expressed confidence in Maryland's "very robust inspection system."
Federal reports indicate that 8.1 percent of Maryland's approximately 5,000 bridges - many of them on low-traffic country roads - earned a structurally deficient designation in 2006. That compares with more than 12 percent nationally and 25 percent in neighboring Pennsylvania.
Officials called the designation an "early warning sign" rather an indication of immediate danger.
O'Malley was joined at the news conference by Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Porcari and other transportation officials.
The secretary's order last night affects four bridges operated by the Maryland Transportation Authority, which manages toll facilities, and six maintained by the state highway agency.
None is identical to the Minnesota bridge, but they fall into the same broad classification. Both spans of the Bay Bridge have portions that are deck truss designs. The Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge on U.S. 40 and the Millard Tydings Memorial Bridge on I-95 also fall into that category.
The six other bridges are SHA-operated structures, most of them in Western Maryland. The nearest to Baltimore carries Route 32 over the Prettyboy Reservoir in Carroll County.
Cahalan said Porcari ordered the inspections even though all the bridges had been inspected this year or last. The spokesman said the most recent Bay Bridge inspection was completed in June.
At the news conference, Porcari and others vouched for the safety of that bridge - the economic lifeline between the Eastern Shore and the rest of the state. Officials stressed that the Bay Bridge, as well as the Key Bridge and the two tunnels under Baltimore Harbor, are inspected annually.
Geoffrey V. Kohlberg, chief engineer for the Maryland Transportation Authority, said that while the two spans of the Bay Bridge are designated as "functionally obsolete" because of capacity limitations, both structures are sound.
Even so, news of the Minnesota bridge collapse had some Marylanders contemplating the consequences of a catastrophic failure of a bridge that soars more than 180 feet over the Chesapeake Bay.
Carol Delayo, 50, of Centreville said she thought twice before crossing the bridge yesterday afternoon. The hesitation was unusual for her, she said, because her job selling new homes on the Eastern Shore usually requires her to help wary homebuyers get over "bridge fright."
"You know, I usually tell people: `Don't worry about the bridge; it's just a road with water under it,'" she said. "But today when I was driving up to the bridge and saw that big hunk of concrete, I turned to my daughter and said, `Are you thinking what I'm thinking?' It's a little nerve-racking."
There are no records of Maryland highway bridges collapsing as a result of structural failure - as opposed to other causes - since 1988, when part of a drawbridge in Pocomoke City fell into the Pocomoke River.