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Old wooden planks form the surface of a 74-year-old Kalihi Street bridge far up in the Kalihi Valley. Inspections determined it to be in poor condition and gave it a rating that indicated “local failures are possible.”
That was four years ago, but it hasn’t been improved.
In fact, a Civil Beat analysis of state and federal bridge inspection data revealed that more than 200 bridges on Oahu are considered deficient or outdated, which means they are in poor condition structurally or not up to current standards.
In 2012, Kirk Caldwell’s mayoral campaign published a 20-page document detailing his promises to Honolulu residents called “A Roadmap for Our Future.”
Along with pledges to continue the rail project and reduce homelessness, Caldwell said he would improve bridges. Specifically, he said he would develop a collaborative plan to “avoid a major tragedy in the future.”
Today, officials say Honolulu has continued pre-existing bridge rehabilitation projects, but they can’t point to any major new initiatives since Caldwell took over. Fifteen bridges that were deemed deficient in 2012 are still in poor condition, and experts say they could pose major safety concerns.
In his 2012 campaign materials, Caldwell wrote that most of the county-owned bridges are “over fifty years old and need to be retrofitted to comply with new federal safety standards. It’s a massive undertaking that needs to be started. Very little is being done, other than the hiring of consultants, to evaluate the types of repairs that need to be undertaken for certain bridges.”
He continued, “I will work with federal, state and county officials, and the private sector to develop and implement a comprehensive island-wide plan with a realistic timetable and financing plan to retrofit our bridges to avoid a major tragedy in the future.”
There are more than 600 “federal aid” bridges on Oahu — structures that qualify for federal funds and are tracked by the Federal Highway Administration. Nearly 40 percent of those bridges are outdated or have been deemed “structurally deficient,” meaning parts of the bridge are in poor condition or worse.
Although the majority of bridges on Oahu are state-owned, then-candidate Caldwell said he would create an “island-wide” plan with state and federal officials.
Ed Sniffen, deputy director of highways for the Hawaii Department of Transportation, said his staff works closely with the county, and the biggest push he has seen from the Caldwell administration has been increasing its inspection and routine maintenance staff.
“They are willing to be proactive in their approach to the system and look at the system itself as a whole,” he said.
However, inspections and routine maintenance alone do not fix deficient or outdated bridges.
Fifteen bridges that were deemed “deficient” in 2012 are still in poor condition, and experts say they could pose major safety concerns.
Andrew Pereira, an information officer for the mayor’s office, said that bridge rehabilitation is incorporated into the mayor’s road repaving initiative.
“The (county) continues to devote resources to ensure bridge inspections occur on schedule and has continued a bridge rehabilitation program that dedicates between $1.5 million to $5.5 million annually,” he said in an email.
A document provided by Pereira outlining the county’s bridge projects described rehabilitation as an “ongoing and pressing need.”
“Funding in recent years had been earmarked for construction, but more design projects are currently scheduled in order to provide for future construction work,” according to the status section of the document.
During this year’s re-election campaign, Caldwell has boasted of his infrastructure achievements.
But the mayor declined to talk to Civil Beat about what he has done to fulfill his promise to improve Oahu’s bridges.
On Oahu, 25 county- and state-owned bridges are classified as “structurally deficient,” meaning they are in poor or serious condition, according to data from the Hawaii Department of Transportation. That’s 22 fewer bridges than when Caldwell was running for election in 2012, but the number of deficient bridges had been decreasing before that. When Peter Carlisle took office in 2010, there were 150 deficient bridges.
Fifteen of the bridges that received that classification in 2012 are still deficient, meaning they have not been significantly repaired or rehabilitated.
William Ibbs is a professor of construction management at the University of California Berkley and an engineering firm owner who has consulted for government agencies. He said bridges that remain in poor condition for years without being rehabilitated can become major safety concerns.
“There’s increased risk of substantial problems with the bridge and ultimately, in an extreme circumstance, even failure, even structural catastrophic failure,” Ibbs said.
Fixing those 15 bridges could have been delayed because of concerns officials have to take into account before starting a project, Sniffen said, which includes environmental considerations and any archeological or historical significance of the surrounding area. Those considerations can delay a project for a couple years.
“We prioritize everything based on the need definitely, on the structural deficiency, but also on how quickly we can deliver,” he said.
“The (county) continues to devote resources to ensure bridge inspections occur on schedule and has continued a bridge rehabilitation program that dedicates between $1.5 million to $5.5 million annually.” — Andrew Pereira, mayor’s office
In May, traffic on a bridge on Kamehameha Highway crossing Paumalu Stream was limited because of emergency repairs. The bridge, which has an average daily traffic of at least 13,000 vehicles, was designated as deficient after an inspection in 2014.
In addition, about 200 other county- and state-owned bridges are considered “functionally obsolete,” meaning their designs need to be updated to meet current safety and traffic requirements.
Although that designation poses less of a safety risk than deficient bridges, it can have an economic impact. When bridges are not up to date, a limit is placed on the amount of traffic or the size of trucks allowed on the bridge, which can impede shipping goods. Limits could also increase traffic congestion and commute time.
Bridges are typically designed to last 50-60 years. Oahu’s bridges are 60 years old on average, and some are more than 100 years old. The life of a bridge can be extended, Ibbs said, like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which is nearing 80 years old. But that’s only with rehabilitation or replacement, not with routine maintenance alone.
The life of a bridge can also be shortened by natural occurrences such as a tropical storm or water erosion.
“Failure can occur because of gradual deterioration, or it can occur because of gradual unseen or unnoticed deterioration combined with some natural catastrophic event,” Ibbs said.
Scour — erosion from water — can weaken the foundation of a bridge, and saltwater is especially corrosive. Inspections must consider whether a bridge is “scour critical” based on its vulnerability. That means the bridge is “determined to be unstable” for scour conditions, according to the federal bridge inspection manual. Nearly 50 bridges in Hawaii are scour critical, including the deficient Kalihi and Paumalu bridges.
The Department of Transportation has been dedicating more money to preservation and safety since Sniffen started on the job in 2015, he said. Funds for highways and bridges were previously split evenly between preservation and building new infrastructure. Now, about 80 percent is dedicated to preservation and safety.
“We don’t want to have to take care of things on an emergency basis like the Paumalu bridge,” Sniffen said. “We want to make sure we’re being proactive about it and taking care of these structures prior to them becoming emergencies.”
Bridges don’t collapse frequently, Ibbs said, estimating that it only happens about once a decade. But it can be catastrophic when they do.
A highway bridge in Minneapolis collapsed in 2007 at the height of rush-hour traffic, killing 13 people and injuring 145 others.