Nation roundup for May 27


San Antonio flooding kills 2; 200-plus rescued

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Two women died after being swept away by floodwaters after weekend rains deluged numerous roads in San Antonio, forcing more than 235 rescues by emergency workers who aided stranded motorists and homeowners at times using inflatable boats.

At least one teenage boy also was reported missing after Saturday’s torrential rains, carried away while trying to cross the swollen Cibolo Creek in the San Antonio suburb of Schertz, authorities said.

At the height of Saturday’s torrential downpours, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro urged residents not to drive as a flash flood warning covered nearly two dozen counties. Nearly 10 inches of rainfall was reported in a matter of hours Saturday at the city’s airport.

The National Weather Service said the flash flood threat would persist until late Sunday morning though mostly cloudy weather with occasional thunderstorms and showers was expected to give way to partly sunny skies later in the day.

The rains left more than 200 residents of the Texas city stranded in cars and homes when water rose unexpectedly up to 4 feet in some spots. Traffic also was snarled, making driving difficult.

“It was pretty crazy,” said Gera Hinojosa, a valet parking cars downtown after the storm. “It was pretty unexpected. We hardly got any warning about it.”

One woman became trapped in her car and climbed to the roof before being swept away in floodwaters, said San Antonio Fire Department spokesman Christian Bove. Her body was later found against a fence, he said.

Emergency officials also recovered the body of a woman in her 60s who was swept away in her car while firefighters were trying to rescue her.

Authorities did not immediately identify the women.

At nightfall, water still was pooling in many ditches and underpasses. Several roadways were closed, including a major highway linking the suburbs and the city.

But even in low-lying neighborhoods along Commerce Street east of downtown San Antonio — a faded stretch of clapboard houses and beauty parlors — yards were clear. In the tourist district around the River Walk, the streets were thick with weekend holiday revelers.

While the water in some homes rose 4 feet high, according to Bove, most residents experienced the floods primarily as a major traffic hassle.

Karen Herring, 50, who spent the day volunteering at a fitness contest at the AT&T Center, said participants complained of three-hour drives across town.

In the city, even a municipal bus was swept away, but firefighters on a boat were able to pluck the three passengers and driver to safety, public transit spokeswoman Priscilla Ingle said. Nobody was injured.

The San Antonio International Airport by Saturday afternoon had recorded 9.87 inches of rain since midnight, causing nearly all streams and rivers to experience extraordinary flooding. The highest amount of rainfall recorded since midnight was 15.5 inches at Olmos Creek at Dresden Drive.

The San Antonio River about 20 miles southeast of the city, near Elmendorf, was expected to peak at 62 feet by Sunday morning, well above the flood stage of 35 feet, the National Weather Service said.

The National Weather Service compared the flooding to the storm of October 1998, when 30 inches of rain fell in a two-day period. In that flood, the Guadalupe and San Antonio River basins overflowed, leaving more than 30 people dead, according to the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority.

Temporary bridges planned for fallen I-5 in Wash.

SEATTLE (AP) — Temporary spans will be installed across the Skagit River in northern Washington state where an interstate highway span collapsed into the water this past week, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Sunday.

Inslee said he hopes the temporary spans, each with two lanes for northbound and southbound traffic, will be finished in about three weeks’ time or about mid-June.

The spans will be pre-built and trucked to Mount Vernon, Wash., where the collapse happened.

The state plan also calls for a permanent span to be built at the same time with crews rolling in the permanent fix by autumn, officials said.

“We’re going to get this project done as fast as humanly possible,” Inslee said. “There are no more important issue right now to the economy of the state of Washington than getting this bridge up and running.”

Officials say there are remaining inspections to the spans left standing to make sure they are safe to use.

The federal government is expected to cover 100 percent of the costs of the temporary bridge and 90 percent the replacement, said state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson.

The temporary span would be able to carry regular-sized cargos as well as cars. The speed limit would be lower than the 60 miles per hour allowed previously.

On Thursday, a semi-truck carrying an oversize load clipped a steel truss, starting the collapse of the span and sending cars and people into the cold river waters, authorities said. The three people in the cars survived with non-life threatening injuries.

But the collapse cut access to one the most important highways in Washington state for trade, commuters and travelers.

On Saturday, barges arrived at the river with equipment ready to remove the mangled steel, pavement and cars in the water.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Debbie Hersman on Sunday said the bridge had withstood other over height collisions with vehicles in the past, with the most recent reported collision happening last October. She said evidence of other collisions can be seen in the spans still standing over the water.

Hersman also said a second truck with a similar cargo was traveling behind the truck involved in the collision. She said investigators are inspecting that cargo and truck to take measurements. The truck involved in the collision has also been moved off the highway on-ramp where it has been parked since Thursday.

Hersman also said investigators have traveled to Alberta, Canada to inspect the trucking company’s records.

The NTSB head also said that if the truck had been on the left lane of the southbound lanes, it likely would have cleared the bridge without a collision, but added that more precise measurements need to be taken. The bridge’s height clearance varies across it.

“We know the company was required to establish that they could clear the entire route,” Hersman said.

The truck’s cargo from Canada was headed to Alaska. Its plan was to load its cargo onto a barge in Vancouver, Wash., about 275 miles south of the border crossing.

Thousands of bridges at risk of freak collapse

SEATTLE (AP) — Thousands of bridges around the U.S. may be one freak accident or mistake away from collapse, even if the spans are deemed structurally sound.

The crossings are kept standing by engineering design, not supported with brute strength or redundant protections like their more modern counterparts. Bridge regulators call the more risky spans “fracture critical,” meaning that if a single, vital component of the bridge is compromised, it can crumple.

Those vulnerable crossing carry millions of drivers every day. In Boston, a six-lane highway 1A near Logan airport includes a “fracture critical” bridge over Bennington Street. In northern Chicago, an I-90 pass that goes over Ashland Avenue is in the same category. An I-880 bridge over 5th Avenue in Oakland, Calif., is also on the list.

Also in that category is the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River north of Seattle, which collapsed into the water days ago after officials say an oversized truck load clipped the steel truss.

Public officials have focused in recent years on the desperate need for money to repair thousands of bridges deemed structurally deficient, which typically means a major portion of the bridge is in poor condition or worse. But the bridge that collapsed Thursday is not in that deficient category, highlighting another major problem with the nation’s infrastructure: Although it’s rare, some bridges deemed to be fine structurally can still be crippled if they are struck hard enough in the wrong spot.

“It probably is a bit of a fluke in that sense,” said Charles Roeder, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington.

While the I-5 truck’s cargo suffered only minimal damage, it left chaos in its wake, with two vehicles catapulting off the edge of the broken bridge into the river below. Three people involved escaped with non-life threatening injuries.

The most famous failure of a fracture critical bridge was the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis during rush hour on Aug. 1, 2007, killing 13 people and injuring more than 100 others. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the cause of the collapse was an error by the bridge’s designers — a gusset plate, a key component of the bridge, was too thin. The plate was only half of the required one-inch thickness.

Because the bridge’s key structures lacked redundancy, where if one piece fails, there is another piece to prevent the bridge from falling, when the gusset plate broke, much of the bridge collapsed.

Mark Rosenker, who was chairman of the NTSB during the I-35W bridge investigation, said the board looked into whether other fracture critical bridges were collapsing. They found a few cases, but not many, he said.

“Today, they’re still building fracture critical bridges with the belief that they’re not going break,” Rosenker said.

Fracture critical bridges, like the I-5 span in Washington, are the result of Congress trying to cut corners to save money rather than a lack of engineering know-how, said Barry B. LePatner, a New York real estate attorney and author of “Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward.”

About 18,000 fracture critical bridges were built from the mid-1950s through the late 1970s in an effort to complete the nation’s interstate highway system, which was launched under President Dwight Eisenhower, LePatner said in an interview. The fracture critical bridge designs were cheaper than bridges designed with redundancy, he said.

Thousands of those bridges remain in use, according to an AP analysis.

“They have been left hanging with little maintenance for four decades now,” he said. “There is little political will and less political leadership to commit the tens of billions of dollars needed” to fix them.

There has been little focus or urgency in specifically replacing the older “fracture critical” crossings, in part because there is a massive backlog of bridge repair work for thousands of bridges deemed to be structurally problematic. Washington state Rep. Judy Clibborn, a Democrat who leads the House transportation committee, has been trying to build support for a tax package to pay for major transportation projects in the state. But her plan wouldn’t have done anything to revamp the bridge that collapsed.

National bridge records say the I-5 crossing over the Skagit River had a sufficiency rating of 57.4 out of 100 — a score designed to gauge the ability of the bridge to remain in service. To qualify for federal replacement funds, a bridge must have a rating of 50 or below. A bridge must have a sufficiency rating of 80 or below to qualify for federal rehabilitation funding.

Hundreds of bridges in Washington state have worse ratings than the one that collapsed, and many around the country have single-digit ratings.

Clibborn said the Skagit River crossing wasn’t even on the radar of lawmakers because state officials have to prioritize by focusing on bridges with serious structural problems that are at higher risk of imminent danger.

Along with being at risk of a fatal impact, the I-5 bridge was deemed to be “functionally obsolete,” which essentially means it wasn’t built to today’s standards. Its shoulders were narrow, and it had low clearance.

There are 66,749 structurally deficient bridges and 84,748 functionally obsolete bridges in the U.S., including Puerto Rico, according to the Federal Highway Administration. That’s about a quarter of the 607,000 total bridges nationally. States and cities have been whittling down that backlog, but slowly. In 2002, about 30 percent of bridges fell into one of those two categories.

Spending by states and local government on bridge construction adjusted for inflation has more than doubled since 1998, from $12.3 billion to $28.5 billion last year, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. That’s an all-time high.

“The needs are so great that even with the growth we’ve had in the investment level, it’s barely moving the needle in terms of moving bridges off these lists,” said Alison Premo Black, the association’s chief economist.

There is wide recognition at all levels of government that the failure to address aging infrastructure will likely undermine safety and hinder economic growth. But there is no consensus on how to pay for improvements. The federal Highway Trust Fund, which provides construction aid to states, is forecast to go broke next year. The fund gets its revenue primarily from federal gas and diesel taxes. But revenues aren’t keeping up because people are driving less and there are more fuel-efficient cars on the road.

Neither Congress nor the White House has shown any willingness to raise federal gas taxes, which haven’t been increased since 1993. Many transportation thinkers believe a shift to taxes based on miles traveled by a vehicle is inevitable, but there are privacy concerns and other difficulties that would preclude widespread use of such a system for at least a decade.

Transportation spending got a temporary boost with the economic stimulus funds approved by Congress after President Barack Obama was elected. Of the $27 billion designated for highway projects under the stimulus program, about $3 billion went to bridge projects, Black said.

States are looking for other means to raise money for highway and bridge improvements, including more road tolls, dedicating a portion of sales taxes to transportation and raising state gas taxes. Clibborn, the Washington state lawmaker, has proposed a 10-cent gas hike to help pay for projects, though the effort has been held up by a dispute over how to rebuild the Columbia River bridge connecting Vancouver, Wash., and Portland, Ore.

“We can’t possibly do it all in the next 10 years,” Clibborn said. “But we’re going to do the first bite of the apple.”

Replacing damaged Mo. bridge estimated at $3M

CHAFFEE, Mo. (AP) — Cleanup of the collapsed southeast Missouri highway overpass continued Sunday, more than 24 hours after a cargo train crash led to a chain reaction.

The crash, which happened about 2:30 a.m. Saturday near Chaffee, led to the derailment of about two dozen rail cars that smashed into the bridge’s support pillars. Seven people in two cars on the Highway M overpass in Scott County were injured, none seriously, when two 40-foot sections of the overpass crumpled. All seven had been released from an area hospital Saturday.

“The damage is very extensive,” Mark Shelton, engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation’s southeast region, said Sunday. “We’re going to end up removing the entire bridge and completely replacing it.”

Shelton said the overpass replacement is estimated to cost about $3 million, and the bridge is expected to reopen in early September.

The overpass, which was built about 15 years ago, is used by about 400 to 500 cars a day, mostly between Chaffee, Scott City and Cape Girardeau. The National Transportation Safety Board said the bridge was given rated “good” after its last inspection in February.

The railroads would likely paying for the replacement, but the investigation into the cause of the accident was still early, Shelton said.

“We’ll have to go through the investigation and all that stuff and figure out liability. But our bridge was just standing there. … So certainly we’ll be looking to the railroad for recovery,” he said.

The collapse occurred after a Union Pacific train hit the side of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train at a rail intersection.

Shelton said crews were at the scene Sunday cleaning up debris and removing sections of the bridge. The derailed rail cars were loaded primarily with scrap metal, automobiles and auto parts.

The National Transportation Safety Board has begun an investigation into the cause of the collision. NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said Saturday that the full investigation could take a year.

The accident came more than a week after a commuter train derailment in Connecticut that injured 70 people and disrupted service for days. That accident involved a railroad corridor used by tens of thousands of commuters north of New York City.

In Washington state this past week, a bridge collapsed when a truck driver’s load bumped against the steel framework.

Sumwalt said while the investigations into both collapses are in the early stages “there is no similarity” between the Missouri accident and the bridge collapse in Washington, which sent two vehicles and three people falling into the chilly water.

 

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