If you're in one of the 5,000 vehicles that cross the Willis Foreman Road bridge over Spirit Creek daily, here's something you might want to know:
It is the most structurally unsound bridge in Richmond County.
In fact, chances are that most motorists in Augusta and surrounding counties cross structurally deficient bridges every day in their communities without knowing it. The odds of that being the case, according to the most recent assessment of the American Society of Civil Engineers, is about 1 in 5.
In Richmond County, 17 bridges were considered structurally defective -- a rating at or below 50. In Columbia County, three bridges were considered functionally obsolete, and 21 were deemed defective in Aiken County.
That they are structurally deficient doesn't mean the bridges are on the verge of collapse. It means the bridge is subpar -- because of physical condition, the materials used in construction, traffic overload or outdated design -- and needs repair or replacement.
In Georgia, 21 percent of the bridges are considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, according to the civil engineers' 2009 study of data from two years earlier. South Carolina's bridges scored even worse, at 23 percent.
Of approximately 600,000 highway bridges in the United States, about 160,000 are either deficient or obsolete, said Andy Herrmann, a bridge engineer who is the president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers. While it doesn't mean the bridges are unsafe, it does mean weight and speed restrictions combined with immediate repairs are needed or the bridges should be closed, Herrmann said.
It's rare for a bridge to fail, which is good and bad, he said. It's good because it means engineers closely inspect and rate bridges to protect the public. It's bad because everyone becomes complacent, preferring to ignore deterioration than spend the money needed to make repairs and replacements.
The last major bridge failure in the U.S. happened Aug. 1, 2007, when the Interstate 35 westbound span over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145. This year, the state and the companies that built and designed the bridge paid out more than $100 million to settle lawsuits.
Before the bridge collapsed -- and the state was in the process of major repairs -- the bridge had a sufficiency rating of 50 on the Structure Inventory and Appraisal of the Nation's Bridges.
AT THE BOTTOM end of the rating among Richmond County bridges is the one crossing Spirit Creek on Willis Foreman Road, which came in at 7. The city is in the process of replacing the bridge, which was built in 1950.
The initial cost estimate was $9 million to replace that bridge. There is $16 million available from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for bridge repairs and replacement, according to Dennis Stroud, an assistant director in the city's public works department.
The state owns many of the bridges in the Augusta area and has plans in various stages to take care of deficient bridges, said Mike Keene, the area engineer for the Georgia Department of Transportation in this area.
The cost of repairs or replacement can range from $200,000 for a short span to the $200 million price tag that came with the new interchange bridge at Interstate 20 and I-520.
A bridge over Walton Branch on Georgia Highway 232 (Columbia Road) is in the design phase for replacement in 2014 at a cost of $11 million to $12 million. Its score was 66 out of 100.
Some of the ratings can be deceiving, Keene said. The bridge where Georgia Highway 150 crosses I-20 in McDuffie County was rated at 20.1. The state does not plan to replace it, however, because it is fine structurally. It has a weight limit, but it is set high. With some maintenance and concrete repairs, Keene said that 20.1 rating would increase to 70.
Anytime an engineer sees cracking during a bridge inspection, it's going to be flagged, Keene said. The problem is that water can seep through the cracks to the inner layer of steel and cause rusting -- which weakens the steel. However, it can take 30 years of rusting to cause steel to break.
THE MOST COMMON reason for a bridge closure is a vehicle hitting the bridge, Keene said.
Bridges deemed obsolete are judged incapable of handling the traffic passing over them. The I-20 bridges over the Savannah River both scored about 45 in the most recent inspections. Nearly 52,000 vehicles pass over the 45-year-old bridges daily.
Georgia plans to replace the bridges and the I-20 bridge over the Augusta Canal in 2015, Keene said. The bridges really need to be six lanes across the Savannah River to handle the traffic. A preliminary cost estimate is $50 million.
The American Society of Civil Engineers' 2009 Report Card gave the country's infrastructure a "D" grade -- the same grade it handed out in 2005.
The difference, said Herrmann, who led the Report Card Committee, is how much it costs to make it right. In 2005, the estimate was $1.5 trillion. In 2009, it rose to $2.2 trillion.
"Things have lives," he said.
Things such as bridges and roads, dams and water systems that make up infrastructure only last so long. Putting off repairs and replacement just leads to the escalation of damage and the cost to make repairs or replacements, he said.
More than 83 percent of the Richmond County bridges rated as deficient or obsolete in 1997 were also found deficient or obsolete in 2007.
"Infrastructure makes our economy grow," Herrmann said.
President Obama pushed the stimulus package as one way for the country to fix the infrastructure and create jobs after the economy took a nosedive at the end of 2007. Building new bridges was supposed to be part of the plan.
The problem was that the stimulus money was set for "shovel ready" projects, which bridges typically are not.
"When it's time to build a bridge, we can't wait," Keene said.