Scenes of a major fire engulfing a busy highway are scary. As citizens, we put a vested confidence in our local government and an unwavering sense of reliance on the roads we drive every single day.
So when an elevated section of a major north-south highway near Atlanta collapsed in a massive fire last week, people in nearby Wilmington ultimately feared the worst.
After a brief sigh of relief — no injuries were reported — the natural response is to look toward our local authorities for reassurance that something similar cannot happen closer to home.
Are the many bridges and aging highways in North Carolina safe?
Robert Broome, the Director of Communications for the state’s Department of Transportation (NCDOT), had one simple answer to that question.
“Let me make this very simple — the bridges and roads in North Carolina are very safe,” he said this week. “Our state is in great shape. I can’t reiterate this enough: We do not compromise on safety.”
Broome, a Tennessee native, is familiar with the current situation in Atlanta where a section of the I-85 northbound highway collapsed. He lived in the area and worked in government relations for six years.
“I drove over that very same highway three times a week,” Broome said. “In North Carolina, our hearts go out to the people in Georgia and we’re relieved no one was hurt. But at the same time, this provided us an opportunity to reemphasize our top priority, and that is safety.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that three suspects were taken into custody because of the fire and subsequent bridge collapse. One suspect was charged with arson, first-degree criminal damage to property and criminal trespass.
Atlanta Fire Chief Joel Baker said he was not sure what temperature is required to cause a bridge collapse, but the plastic materials stored under the bridge played a factor in the high temperature.
Even before those details were released, Broome said North Carolina authorities were taking action. A few hours after scenes of the fire appeared on TV screens across America, James H. Trogdon III, who was appointed NCDOT secretary in January 2017, contacted Broome’s office.
“He reminded us to follow the proper procedures of safe storage of materials near all of our bridges and highways,” Broome said.
“In Atlanta, there were materials stored under the bridge and when it caught fire, that’s when the bridge collapsed. In this state, we do routine inspections of all of our bridges and overpasses. Making sure materials are stored in a safe manner is part of those inspections.”
Construction areas were of the gravest concern, Broome said.
According to its website, NCDOT is responsible for the safety of more than 18,000 bridges, pipes and culverts along North Carolina’s highways. About 9,000 of the state’s bridges are inspected every year, and all of them are inspected every two years.
“We continue to operate an aggressive inspection program that ensures that all North Carolina bridges are safe,” said Division 3 Engineer Karen Collette, who oversees Brunswick and New Hanover counties.
But in February, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) compiled a list of bridges in the U.S. that are structurally deficient, based on data from each district’s transportation department.
According to the report, 1,790 of North Carolina’s 18,099 bridges are classified as structurally deficient or in need of major repairs. More than 3,000 bridges are classified as functionally obsolete, meaning they do not meet current design standards.
Even the NCDOT website states that as much as 40 percent of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, but Broome said that does not mean they are too dangerous for drivers.
“We would never compromise the safety of the traveling public here,” he said.
“The key message we want people to know is that drivers should feel be confident and safe when driving the highways or crossing a bridge in North Carolina. If we ever find something unsafe, then we will close it until it is safe.”
Learn more about the highways and roads in North Carolina by visiting the NCDOT website.