Despite spending $250 million, more suburban bridges 'deficient'

1 out of 13 a problem last year; this year, it's 1 out of 11

For the past five years, the bridge that carries Milwaukee Avenue over a small stream just north of Libertyville has been listed by the Illinois Department of Transportation as a “high priority” for repairs.

Inspectors have deemed some segments of the bridge “structurally deficient” in annual checkups since 2006. But come this spring, that might all change. The bridge is scheduled for replacement as part of a $23 million widening and reconstruction plan for the thoroughfare, according to IDOT officials.

The problem is, when that bridge comes off the state transportation department's “deficient” list, another one — or possibly two — will replace it.

Roughly $250 million in federal and state taxes were spent this past fiscal year to fix or replace 91 bridges in the six-county Chicago and suburban region, according to IDOT officials. Yet, there are more bridges on the state's deficient list today than at the same time last year. Many are carry-overs from last year. In fact, 293 of the 3,693 bridges in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties were considered deficient last year. As of Monday, 337 bridges in those counties are considered deficient, according to IDOT's website.

Only DuPage County has fewer deficient bridges than in 2010.

Some complain that transportation infrastructure is not the priority it should be.

“It's common all over the country,” said David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation for America, a national transportation infrastructure advocacy consortium. “The longer the recession lingers and tax receipts remain depressed, maintenance is one of the things that's relatively easy to defer.”

Goldberg said his organization is trying to get Congress to make bridge and road maintenance a priority in the next federal transportation funding bill “for the first time ever.”

That might speed up some projects that will be waiting years for funding assistance otherwise.

Since 2006, the Interstate 90 bridges maintained by the Illinois Toll Highway Authority over Oakton Avenue in Elk Grove Village have been deemed deficient in some categories, according to IDOT inspection records. Currently, the substructures of both bridges — the vertical supports of the bridges that carry an average of 68,700 vehicles a day — are considered to be in “poor condition.” The overall condition of the bridges themselves are listed at the “minimum adequacy to be left in place,” according to the inspection report.

“These two bridges are scheduled to be repaired in 2015 as part of the I-90 corridor reconstruction and widening project,” said tollway spokeswoman Wendy Abrams. “Our current cost estimate to design, construct and inspect the bridges, in 2015 dollars, is $13.3 million. These bridges pose no safety concerns and we continue to monitor them regularly.”

The wait is similar for a bridge carrying Interstate 290 over Salt Creek near Addison. IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said that bridge, which has 75,500 vehicles use it daily, is scheduled for repair sometime between now and 2017 and will cost an estimated $12.4 million. Inspectors have rated the condition of the bridge's road and horizontal supports as “critical” for the past three years.

Some critics have charged that bridge inspections are often subjective, and a 2010 federal report criticized some spending practices on bridges that weren't rated deficient. However, IDOT officials argue that all inspections are checked for accuracy to ensure funding goes where there is a priority.

That's why the Algonquin Road bridge over Salt Creek in Rolling Meadows, which had its roadway and support structures listed in critical condition last year, was one of the 91 suburban bridges fixed this year. That project lasted most of the summer and into the fall, costing $1.6 million, Tridgell said.

But with bridges hitting the deficient list at a higher rate than those getting fixed, some worry that bridges with these critical deficiencies may wait longer for repair.

“That's one of the reasons we have tried to call attention to this issue and are looking to Congress to do something about it,” Goldberg said.

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1 in 13 local bridges 'structurally deficient'

Judged structurally deficient since 2006, this Milwaukee Avenue bridge north of Route 137 in Libertyville is scheduled for replacement next year. Paul Valade/File Photo 2010
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