Maine has a bridge problem. New England has a bridge problem. The nation has a bridge problem.
Red flags, lots of them — 86,413 countrywide in fact — are waving, according to the federal National Bridge Inventory. A red-flagged bridge means that a federal inspection has determined it to be either "structurally deficient," in which at least one component is in poor or worse condition, or "fracture critical," in which a bridge is considered at risk of collapse should a single, vital component fail, according to a recent Associated Press analysis of the bridge inventory.
Of the nation's 607,380 bridges, 65,605 were determined to be "structurally deficient," and 20,808 were labeled "fracture critical."
And 7,795 bridges, 47 of them in Maine, were designated as double-red-flagged, considered to be both "structurally deficient" and "fracture critical." The lone bridge in the tri-county area given this dubious distinction crosses the Androscoggin River in the town of Lisbon behind the vacant Worumbo Mill.
As the average person tries to make sense of these ratings, phrases such as "structurally deficient" and "fracture critical," accompanied by red flags, raise their own red flags: Should we be afraid? Is there imminent danger?
State transportation officials assure us these double-red-flagged bridges are not in imminent danger of collapse, and that the state has its own, more aggressive program of inspections to assess problem structures more frequently. Also, double-red-flagged bridges are posted against heavy loads.
So, then, what does a red flag, or double-red-flag designation really mean? In a color-coded world like ours, "red" is usually associated with danger. But what happens when a bridge is red-flagged a second time, or stays on the double-red-flag list for another cycle? Does it mean danger?
Think the former color-coded terrorism alert system, which was ditched in January 2011, in favor of a more descriptive system. In a speech given by former Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano announcing the change, she pointed out that the terror-threat alert at airports had remained at the orange level since 2006.
That's one reason people (stopped) paying attention to them, Napolitano said.
In addition, she said, the color-coded warnings were vague, and didn't really tell people what was happening. It made them afraid, she said, but didn't give them any information.
And that is the danger of the red flag. The flags tell people "something" isn't right, but they give no indication of what the problem is. A warning notice with a brief description of the issue might be more helpful.
And once any warning, color-coded or otherwise, stays around for a while it loses its significance.
But saving the red flags for actual danger might mean they are taken more seriously at a time when it really counts.
It's certainly important to inspect bridges and to let the populace know there are problems that must be corrected. However, we are advocating for a rating, or warning system, that is more descriptive and informative up-front.
Red flag, at-risk warning, whatever you want to call it, the important thing is letting the populace know there is a problem and helping them to understand the importance of committing resources necessary to repair or replace these aging structures.
No one wants the first real red flag to be a bridge collapse.
The health of our infrastructure should be of concern to all of us in this state, for our personal health and safety, and for the health of our economy. Good, safe roads and bridges make the state attractive to businesses and travelers, both of which are necessary to keep Maine not only a wonderful place to live, but a great place to make a living.
While the state assures us none of our bridges is considered to be in imminent danger of collapse, when you have the opportunity to do so — such as the upcoming transportation bond vote in November — we encourage you not to dismiss the opportunity to vote in favor of spending that will improve our infrastructure.
Don't let the red flags scare you, and don't ignore them. Do let them serve as a reminder that our bridges and roads need your attention and support. In this world of ever-increasing costs, this work is unlikely to cost less in the future.