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Illinois bridges and ship safety concerns are raised

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(The Center Square) – Bridge safety issues are attracting more attention in Illinois after a major collapse happened in Maryland.

The Illinois Department of Transportation rates 86% of the state’s bridges as acceptable.

Robert Poole, director of Transportation Policy at Reason Foundation, said issues with fracture-critical bridges should not be handled only at the national level.

“This has not been a priority for state departments of transportation, even though the Federal Highway Administration has a database on deficient bridges,” Poole said.

A container ship lost power and struck a pier in Baltimore in late March, leading to the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Poole said protection is needed for more than bridge structures alone.

“It was the pier that was knocked out, but that destroyed the structural integrity of the whole thing,” Poole said.

Illinois is spending more than $25 billion over six years on roads and bridges through the Rebuild Illinois program, plus an estimated $1.4 billion in federal funding for bridge replacement and repair.

Bridges slated for replacement include the Chester Bridge over the Mississippi River in Randolph County and the Chicago Avenue and Lake Street bridges over the Chicago River in Chicago.

Power outages and collisions are not uncommon for ships in the Midwest.

According to U.S. Coast Guard data, freighters, tankers and cargo ships lost power in the Great Lakes more than 200 times from 2012 to 2022 and crashed into stationary objects more than 60 times in that period. Near misses have been reported this year on the Mississippi River.

Poole said most cargo ships have a single engine.

“There’s nobody saying that you should have redundancy. What happens if that one engine goes out?” Poole asked. “You think about an airliner that goes across the ocean. Nobody would do a single-engine airliner. It would never be certified by anybody.”

Another problem is the failure to utilize tugboats, he said.

“Most shipping lines will not pay for tugs to escort the ship all the way past the bridge that’s between the port and the ocean,” Poole said.

A loss of power led to the Dali container ship striking a pier and collapsing the fracture-critical Key Bridge in Maryland this past March.

The National Transportation Safety Board has deemed at least 17,000 bridges in the U.S. to be fracture-critical.