Engineer Explains What ‘Structurally Deficient’ Means for Bridges

March 10, 2016 | Transportation
Engineer Joseph Femia says bridges deemed "structurally deficient" aren't necessarily unsafe for travel.

By Brenda Flanagan

Contractors balanced on barges, worked beneath Hackensack’s Anderson Street Bridge — repairing corroded concrete supports eaten away by years and winter road salts.

Meanwhile, lane closures up top squeezed traffic down from four lanes to only one. No big rigs allowed.

Engineers call this bridge “structurally deficient.” What’s that mean to motorists?

“You could see the rust and the broken up pieces of steel and the broken up pieces of concrete,” said trucker Joey Mazliah.

“It would make me think something’s wrong with the bridge,” said Oakland resident Julio Shiling. Would he still want to drive over it? “No.”

“The bridge is safe. If the bridge was not safe, we would have the entire bridge completely closed to traffic,” said Bergen County engineer Joseph Femia.

Femia explained what “structurally deficient” means to professionals.

“There’s one or more elements of the bridge that are substandard. In this case, because we’re doing repairs to the decks, abutments, and pier caps, those are the elements that are substandard,” Femia said.

Most motorists don’t even realize they’re driving over structurally deficient bridges. More than 150,000 cross the Route 4 span over the Hackensack every day. It’s included in a recent report that ranked New Jersey eighth in the nation for deficient bridges last year with more than 2,310 out of 6,686 — 34.5 percent — requiring repair. That’s actually an improvement over 2014 and mostly includes spans deemed “functionally obsolete” — out-moded and over-taxed designs — like Princeton’s recently reopened Route 206 bridge. It’s 224 years old.

“We do have a good number of functionally obsolete bridges, and that’s because being a state in the northeast — that is a corridor state with transportation infrastructure that’s old — it was built a long time ago and so we have older infrastructure than many other states. It’s hard to just build something brand new — so we have to rehabilitate the infrastructure that we have,” said Steve Schapiro, communications director at the New Jersey Department of Transportation.

Rehabbing the Anderson Street span will cost about $300,000 and take two months while Bergen County studies price tags for a complete redo and New Jersey officials struggle to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund.

For cash-strapped agencies, stop-gap repairs keep bridges open and cars rolling, because a real fix or total replacement, is a bridge too far.