AUGUSTA – Gov. John Baldacci sought Thursday to reassure motorists who use Maine’s roughly 3,800 bridges that they are safe and inspected regularly, even though federal data categorizes more than 300 as structurally deficient like the one that collapsed during rush-hour traffic in Minneapolis.

Baldacci ordered a review of the state’s current inspection program to make sure it meets or exceeds federal standards. In addition, he ordered the state to review the cause of the Minneapolis bridge collapse to learn from any mistakes.

Joined by top transportation officials, Baldacci told reporters that he wants to “reassure … Maine people that our bridges are safe.”

Maine officials received a number of calls and e-mails expressing concerns about the safety of Maine bridges following the Minnesota disaster.

“We’re constantly looking at ways to ensure public safety because that’s first and foremost,” Maine Transportation Commissioner David Cole said Thursday. “Our bridges are safe at the posted level.”

Maine’s definition of what constitutes a bridge is fairly liberal. All told, there are 3,800 bridges including those owned by local governments.

By the federal government’s definition, there are 2,380 bridges and 343 of them – or 14.4 percent – are structurally deficient, according to an analysis of Federal Highway Administration figures by The Associated Press. Nationwide, about 12 percent, were classified as structurally deficient at the start of the year.

Transportation officials on Thursday acknowledged that many Maine bridges are structurally deficient, but said that does not necessarily mean the bridges are unsafe.

Failure to meet design standards often reflects changed federal standards such as lane or shoulder width, and should not be interpreted as a structural weakness, said John Buxton, Maine’s bridge maintenance director.

Buxton said his seven-member bridge inspection staff checks all 3,800 of the bridges at least once every two years. Of the total, at least 1,800 are inspected annually.

Maine inspectors have a special crane that enables them to get a close look at sections that are not easily accessible. Maine also is one of few states that has a dive team that inspects supporting structures underwater, Buxton said.

In addition, the Transportation Department has a group that surveys bridges that are candidates for capital improvements, which adds a layer of oversight, said Cole. Baldacci himself, accompanied by DOT officials, scaled the catwalks of the seven-decade-old Waldo-Hancock Bridge between Prospect and Verona Island before it was closed due to corroded cables and later replaced by a new span.

“That’s where we err – on the side of safety,” Baldacci said.

Earlier Thursday, Baldacci said he ordered a bridge inventory “to see what’s going on, if there are any weaknesses or deficiencies that we should be addressing.” He noted that Maine voters in June authorized a $113 million transportation bond issue, which includes $100 million for highways and bridges and nearly $13 million in marine, rail, trail, aviation and transit projects.

In June, a Washington, D.C.-based transportation research group said about one-third of Maine’s bridges show significant deterioration or do not meet current design standards. Forty-nine percent of Maine’s bridges are 50 or more years old, said the report by TRIP.

The same report said current funding levels are inadequate to keep pace with the rate of bridge deterioration in Maine.

The Minnesota disaster points to a problem of aging bridges and highways through the country and in Maine in particular, where 288 bridges are beyond their expected lifetime but are still in limited use, said state Sen. Dennis Damon, R-Trenton, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.

Damon, whose legislation to draw more funding to highways and bridges was weakened during the last session, said he hopes now to see transportation funding efforts gain new momentum.

David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.

AP-ES-08-02-07 1953EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.