Consultant says state should do more to make bridges safe

Monday, May 26th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A former National Transportation Safety Board chairman says the state and federal agencies are taking too long to secure bridges.

Jim Burnett, former National Transportation Safety Board chairman and current safety consultant, is getting impatient with the state and nation moving slowly in increasing bridge safety.

The I-40 bridge was rebuilt in a record two months, virtually the same as it was 36 years ago except for some added strength from supports around the foundations of the original bridge supports, Burnett said.

The bridge collapsed after a support pier was hit be a barge being pushed by a tugboat.

Fourteen people were killed a year ago Monday when the bridge split.

William Joe Dedmon was piloting the boat when it rammed into the bridge. Dedmon has told investigators he blacked out just before the collision. Doctors say Dedmon had a previously undiagnosed heart condition that deprived him of oxygen to his brain.

Burnett says it possible the piers on the new bridge are strong enough to withstand a hard hit, the bridge's other piers need more protection.

``Part of it is the attitude that it wasn't a problem to begin with,'' Burnett said.

Burnett says the state may have held off security measures for the bridge because it bridge seemed safe.

``Obviously Mr. Burnett is entitled to his opinion,'' said Terri Angier, spokeswoman for state Transportation Department.

``I think it's extremely dangerous to make comments in a situation in which 14 people have lost their lives and makes it very offensive to the department after all the good faith we've shown in this case and the proven fact that that incident did not happen because of ODOT. The barge did it.''

The state department is paying a consultant $450,000 to assess the state's bridges across its navigation system.

That study is not complete, and the department has been unable to say when it might be ready. Consultants also will get up to $1.2 million to study the cause of the collapse.

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