Nearly a quarter of all bridges in Ventura County are either obsolete or structurally deficient, inspection data reported to the federal government in last year reveals.

After the fatal collapse of a span of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minn., in 2007, many state and local agencies re-examined bridges in their jurisdictions. Regular inspection reports, however, underscore how funding crises are keeping maintenance crews off all but the most dangerous bridges.

“I’m not too concerned right now about a failure similar to what we had in Minnesota, but we can’t be everywhere all at one time,” said Butch Britt, Ventura County’s transportation director.

Forty-nine bridges in the county were deemed “structurally deficient”, according to the most recent data available, compiled in an msnbc.com analysis of the National Bridge

Inventory through 2006, as reported by states in April 2007. An additional 69 bridges were reported “functionally obsolete.”

Despite their deficiencies, only three bridges in the county failed to meet minimum standards outlined in the report.

The worst offender was the 1,233-foot span of Main Street crossing the Ventura River. That bridge, built in 1932, carries more than 6,000 vehicles a day, and was found to be in critical condition. The report said replacing the bridge was a high priority, but Ventura City Engineer Rick Raives said doing so is too expensive for the foreseeable future.

“I think at this point just because of limited funding and other road priorities we haven’t been able to begin any rehab work,” Raives said.

The issue, he said, is heavy water flow during storms because the bridge’s foundations are in the river bottom, not on deep piles. After a collapse in 1995, the bridge is monitored closely whenever there is a storm, he said. Some steel cabling has also been added to tie the bridge together, but a full replacement, which the bridge needs, would cost $30 million. Federal programs could pay for up to 80 percent of the replacement, but the city, already in a funding crunch, would need to find $6 million for its portion of the replacement.

“It’s the same funding that we use to pave our streets, put in traffic signals, put in traffic safety measures, do traffic signals and do any road widening,” Raives said. “All those projects fight for a very limited amount of money.”

Two other bridges also received critical warnings. One is on a minor county road north of Santa Paula; the other is a county-managed stretch of Telegraph Road crossing the Ellsworth Barranca. Britt said a $2 million reconstruction project for that bridge is scheduled to go out to bid in April 2009, but the price could climb by as much as 50 percent due to rising costs for steel, oil derivatives and other supplies.

The county does look at its major bridges every couple of months, Britt said, as well as during regular maintenance. He said about 17 county bridges were eligible for federal funding, but only two or three get funded a year.

Elsewhere, a bridge on Highway 33 crossing Stanley Avenue in Ventura has a deck (or surface) in serious condition, although its structure is in better shape. Doug Failing, the director of CalTrans District 7, which includes Ventura County, said his agency is paying close attention to that bridge. Although not a permanent solution, an asphalt overlay has been placed on the deck while engineers strategize more lasting repairs.

“We, like everyone else, need to have a budget and do the best we have with it,” Failing said. “As far as most citizens are concerned, they need to worry that the bridge is structurally adequate and that it won’t fall down on them.”

Failing said his department watches structurally deficient bridges closely. Functionally obsolete bridges are not as worrisome, he said, because they usually just do not have wide enough shoulders or are not easily accessible.

In Simi Valley, where three bridges were rated functionally obsolete and six structurally deficient, Assistant Public Works Director Ron Fuchiwaki stressed none of the city’s bridges are unsafe. Improvements to at least one of the bridges are in the city’s five year plan, pending appropriate funding.

“In Simi Valley, as well as the other agencies throughout Ventura County and the state, we are facing some tight budget years coming up,” Fuchiwaki said.

In Camarillo, the data in the study is already out of date. A bridge on Pleasant Valley Road over Callegaus Creek rated structurally deficient in 2005 has already been replaced, Public Works Director Tom Fox said. The $6 million bridge was a top priority because of deficiencies in its surface and substructure. Another deficient bridge on the list, where Adolfo Road crosses the same creek and suffers a cracked surface, is the city’s next priority, Fox said.

The County Transportation Commission’s new executive director Darren Kettle said any improvements to the bridges might be difficult, given the state’s current budget crunch.

“In California, the only money going into transportation is the money that is solely dedicated to it. That’s just not enough to develop the safety side and add room for new capacity,” Kettle said.

The only source of money for infrastructure improvements are gas taxes, which have a fixed rate despite recent skyrocketing gas prices. It is not politically feasible to raise gas taxes, even to pay for safety improvements, Kettle said. Meanwhile, some commuters are actually deciding to leave their cars at home, threatening a dip in revenues for infrastructure.

“That is about the only source of revenue that we see,” Kettle said.   

The full msnbc.com story is located at bridges.msnbc.com. The package includes a feature that lets you check the status of bridges along readers’ regular commutes and information about methodology used to compile the report. Ventura County-specific data is available in excel format here.