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Grant will test sensors on city bridges

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At the behest of Rep. Anthony Weiner, the House of Representatives has allocated $5 million for a pilot technology that uses wireless sensors to evaluate the safety of bridges.

The allocation is a small add-on to a $1 billion House spending bill focused on bridge safety. Most of the money in the bill is focused on increasing inspections and renovations of the country’s bridges.

The pilot technology seeks to help engineers determine which bridges are in need of the most urgent repairs. In effect, the sensors used for the technology are “virtual inspectors,” as Weiner put it.

The technology works by using wireless fiber-optic sensors attached to various points along the bridge. These sensors – which report back to a centralized computer database – track changes in the way a bridge supports itself. This allows engineers to assess the severity of structural problems as a bridge develops small cracks and fissures over time, which all bridges do.

It was a series of small fissures, the severity of which were not diagnosed, that led to the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis last August that killed 13 and injured approximately 100 people. Weiner has been pushing for this program since the collapse, during which he was a member of the House Transportation Committee.

The $5 million allocation provides money for five states to apply for $1 million each. Any of the approximately 140,000 in the country deemed “structurally deficient” by the Federal Department of Transportation are eligible to receive this technology.

In Brooklyn, these structurally deficient bridges include the Brooklyn Bridge, the Gerritsen Inlet Bridge, and the Mill Basin Bridge. Within New York City, 19 bridges fall into this category, including the Queensboro, Triborough, and Throgs Neck bridges.

The cost of installing these sensors on a large-span bridge like the Brooklyn Bridge is estimated to be between $250,000 and $500,000. Installing sensors on smaller bridges costs considerably less.

States receiving the grant would put the contract up for bid and be reimbursed 80 percent of the cost by the federal government.

Weiner went out of his way to assured New Yorkers that “our bridges are safe.”

But, he added, “We have to be vigilant and proactive in keeping them that way. This low cost and effective technology will allow us to predict problems and have virtual inspectors on our bridges 24/7. It’s simply a no-brainer.”

Weiner spokesman John Collins acknowledged the $5 million program was a relative drop in the bucket in the $1 billion spending bill, but said, “To have this program at all is a big step forward. If this pilot program works, we’ll go from there.”

The spending bill enjoys wide bipartisan support and is expected to pass both houses of Congress by the end of the week.

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