ORLANDO - Whether it's durable construction, attentive maintenance or just a fortunate geography that doesn't include the freeze and frost-filled winters of the North, Florida's bridges continue to be among of the sturdiest in the nation.
An Associated Press study of federal records shows that there are 65,605 "structurally deficient" highway bridges and 20,808 "fracture critical" bridges nationwide - but only a handful of those are in Florida. A fracture critical bridge is one that doesn't have redundant protections and is at risk of collapse if a single, vital component fails. A structurally deficient bridge is in need of rehabilitation or replacement because at least one major component has advanced deterioration or other problems that have led inspectors to deem its condition "poor" or worse.
The Florida Department of Transportation said that of the 6,661 bridges it maintains and another 2,496 bridges it inspected last year that are owned by local jurisdictions, 17 have structural deficiencies and two are fracture critical. One is a small drawbridge owned by Miami-Dade County that crosses the Miami River. The other, Broad Causeway Drawbridge, is owned by the city of Miami. Combined they have a daily traffic average of more than 25,000. But FDOT says structural deficiencies in both spans are being addressed.
Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said the state's approach to bridge care helps keep the number of bridges in the two red-flag categories low.
"We go by the old saying of making sure your house is in good shape before you add new additions," Prasad said. "As a result, the state of Florida has invested way more than what we get from national allocations on bridges."
The FDOT's policy is that "once a bridge is identified as structurally deficient, it must be programmed for repair or replacement within six years," spokesman Dick Kane said.
Federal funding for bridge repair and replacement is based on need and fluctuates yearly.
Many highway bridges have sufficiency ratings - scored on 100-point scale - that help determine a state's eligibility to receive federal funding for their maintenance or replacement.
For the current fiscal year, Florida has $265 million in federal funding for bridge repair and replacement, FDOT said. In addition, $154 million in state funding has also been set aside.
The most-traveled bridge currently on Florida's structurally deficient list is the state-owned Philip D. Beall Sr. Bridge, which crosses Pensacola Bay. It was built in 1960 and has an average daily traffic of 51,700 vehicles.
Its sufficiency rating is 37.7. It has been slotted for replacement in 2017 and is undergoing a project development study.
Another state-owned bridge, Palm Beach County's Flagler Memorial, sees a daily average of 16,123 vehicles use it to cross the Intracoastal Waterway. Its 42.6 sufficiency rating helped it garner construction money for a $94 million replacement project that is set for completion in 2016.
Officials considered closing it but left it open during the process under a limited basis as to not to disrupt a main commerce artery.
Prasad that in bridge care, it's important not to ignore preservation needs: "Bridges are a little different in that when you replace or create a new bridge, communities gets energized.
"If you keep doing that at the expense of neglecting preservation needs, that's when you're going to pay the price sometime down the road. That's when your preservation needs will be such that you don't have the resources."
But not all bridges in the state are owned or controlled by the FDOT or are eligible for state funds.
Prasad said it's the locally controlled bridges that are the biggest challenge and concern because those municipalities are the shortest on funding.
The Miami-Dade County-owned bridge that crosses the Miami River - with a 40.1 sufficient rating - falls into that category, as well as the Miami-owned Broad Causeway Drawbridge - 31.1 sufficiency rating.
The historic Old Seven Mile Bridge connecting Marathon to Pigeon Key also is one of the Florida bridges listed as structurally deficient. But the state-owned bridge has been shut down to vehicle traffic since 2007 as locals try to work out a funding deal for its restoration.
Kane said FDOT's Miami District office is doing a study to determine the bridge's outcome.
Prasad said he understands that though there are bridges that aren't necessarily under the state's umbrella, they still have needs.
"Those bridges, some of them are big bridges in Miami or other places, and they aren't available for state funds," Prasad said. "But some of those bridges do need major repairs. ... We went through one of the worst recessions, and all jurisdictions are strapped for cash."
But he said no ailing bridge in the state will be ignored, as long as the burden for addressing their needs is shared.
"The locals also need to be responsible and accountable for their infrastructures," Prasad said. "At the end of the day if it's the critical commerce corridor and if it needs to be closed, we'll figure out a way. But the conversation should be (about) who is responsible and accountable for it."