Wayward trucks smash into Indianapolis bridges 400 times

Too-tall trucks have been hitting the too-low Virginia Avenue Bridge in downtown Indianapolis too often.

As many as 70 trucks have crashed into the bridge in recent years, causing transportation officials to mount a surveillance camera and finally a plan to lower the roadway and bring some peace to the smashed-up overpass.

The Virginia Avenue Bridge isn't the only one taking a beating, as several overpasses in the area have been clipped hundreds of times, according to the Indiana Department of Transportation.

While there has been concern the America's highway system is becoming less reliable and in need of repair—including a recent plea from President Barack Obama for infrastructure spending as part of his "grand bargain"—the Indianapolis bridge is not a poster child for the country's crumbling infrastructure. There is a different culprit at work.

Transportation officials last week released a video montage of surveillance footage, showing trucks slamming into the bridge over and over and over again. The video was released in hopes of fending off complaints from drivers, who will have to detour around the repairs for up to three months while the roadway is lowered below several bridges.

"More than 400 collisions have been recorded at seven city street bridges over the I-65/I-70 'South Split' since 1999, and the frequency and severity of vehicle-bridge strikes has increased in recent years," said Nathan Riggs, the spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation's Greenfield District.

Off-the-shelf global positioning systems may be the cause, said Sean McNally, spokesman at the American Trucking Associations. "We're not seeing increases in truck sizes or weights," McNally said in dismissing other factors. "Sometimes trucks wander where they're not supposed to be."

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Reports say GPS units elsewhere have directed too-trusting drivers into sloughs, atop mountains, into oncoming traffic, and to the edge of cliffs. And apparently they keep sending big trucks to the unluckiest bridge of all.

Truck accident on the Virginia Avenue Bridge, Indianapolis, IN
Source: Indiana Department of Transportation
Truck accident on the Virginia Avenue Bridge, Indianapolis, IN

McNally said his group has backed the efforts of U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer (D.-N.Y.) to encourage commercial drivers to use specialized GPS units that factor in the specifics of the truck they're driving, including the height, weight and contents. In calling for further federal review, Schumer last year cited reports from police organizations that said GPS issues were at the root of more than 80 percent of bridge strikes in New York state.

In a statement emailed to CNBC on Wednesday, Schumer said he was pleased the U.S. Department of Transportation now distributes visor cards to truck drivers about specialized GPS units, but he said more action is required.

"I will continue to press the federal Department of Transportation to move forward with the proposed rulemaking for GPS training that I announced earlier this year, which the DOT has slow-walked for too long," he said. "Until the DOT moves forward with the rule, the safety precautions we know have the ability to prevent these bridge strikes remain troublingly incomplete."

In Indiana, the multi-bridge repair had an estimated cost of $15 million to $20 million, with about 90 percent of the project financed with federal highway funds. The Indiana Department of Transportation on Thursday awarded the $12.4 million contract to fix the bridge clearances, Riggs told CNBC on Monday. An innovative bidding process allowed for a cost lower than projected and reduced the interstate's closure days to 59, he said.

Since repairs after a Feb. 22 crash, the northbound lanes under the Virginia Avenue Bridge have had a clearance of only 13 feet, 11 inches. The southbound lanes, where the camera is located, has a posted clearance of 14 feet.

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The bridge, which was built in 1973, has been a problem for a long time. In 2011, WTHR in Indianapolis reported the bridge had already been hit 23 times on the northbound side and 25 in the southbound direction.

It's unclear exactly how many times it's been hit.

Bridge inspectors' records show they've been called out 70 times since 2006 to inspect the bridge because of a report of a strike or potential strike, Riggs said.

The repair project will increase the vertical clearance at seven area bridges to at least 14 feet 9 inches by reconstructing and lowering a half mile of interstate pavement.

Most states limit truck height to 13 feet, six inches, McNally said. "Some, particularly out west, allow 14," he said.

The current bridge height shouldn't be a problem if drivers complied with existing laws, which require drivers to get a permit for any loads measuring 13 feet 6 inches, Riggs said. That means "drivers striking the bridges (1) do not properly secure their load, (2) do not properly measure their load, (3) do not have the proper permit, or (4) venture off their permitted route," Riggs said in an email. "All drivers are responsible for their vehicles and loads, and any damage they may cause."

So far, in fiscal year 2013, Indiana has recovered $4.1 million of $4.7 million statewide in claims it has billed insurance companies and individuals for repairs to damages caused by a crash that is documented by a police report, Riggs said. For a particularly bad strike to the Virginia Avenue Bridge on Feb. 22, INDOT submitted a damage claim of $107,462.24 and recovered $105,085.35, he said.

McNally said the legal team at the trucking association confirmed that states and cities generally try to recover repair costs from the carriers.

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Wayward trucks aren't the only trouble confronting America's bridges.

Thousands of bridges built for the Interstate highway system nearly 50 years ago are reaching the end of their useful life just as funds are running low. Fueled mainly by the federal gas tax, the Highway Trust Fund is expected to bottom out by 2015. Improvements needed nationwide top $50 billion, according to a 2011 report by the Congressional Budget Office.

UPDATE: This story was updated to reflect that the contract for the bridge project has been awarded.

By CNBC's Amy Langfield. Follow her on Twitter @AmyLangfield