66 bridges in Spain have serious safety problems, ministry admits

The figure represents 0.29% of nearly 23,000 structures built on roads managed by the Spanish state

The old Jose León de Carranza bridge in Cádiz.
The old Jose León de Carranza bridge in Cádiz.Juan Carlos Toro
Elena G. Sevillano

There are 66 road structures in Spain, many of them bridges, with serious signs of damage that could compromise their safety, according to a restricted government database to which EL PAÍS has had access. Most of these structures have recently undergone urgent repairs, said government sources.

This figure represents just 0.29% of the nearly 23,000 structures – bridges, viaducts, overpasses and underpasses – built on roads that are managed directly by the Spanish state, which says there is no risk of collapse. Only 6.5% of the analyzed elements were completely free of anomalies.

The collapse of a bridge in Genoa, Italy last August has drawn attention to the safety of road infrastructure

Of the 66 structures, 17 have already undergone repairs, one is being currently fixed, and another has been torn down as it was no longer necessary given its location on a secondary road, according to a written reply from the Public Works Ministry to queries from EL PAÍS.

The ministry keeps a database called Bridge Management System (SGP) detailing each structure, the inspections it has undergone, the problems that were detected, and corrective measures undertaken, if any. This database is restricted and the government refuses to make it public “for security reasons.” EL PAÍS accessed the information after filing an official request backed by Spain’s Transparency Law, which was passed in 2013.

The collapse of a bridge in Genoa, Italy last August has drawn attention to the safety of road infrastructure in Spain, where a deep economic crisis caused cuts to infrastructure maintenance funds. Germany has disclosed information about the state of its structures, but Spain has been keeping this information under wraps.

Overpass in poor condition on the FE-13 highway in Ferrol (A Coruña).
Overpass in poor condition on the FE-13 highway in Ferrol (A Coruña).OSCAR CORRAL

The nearly 23,000 structures along Spain’s roads have been inspected at least once in the last five years, according to this data. Inspectors assessed the damage based on several criteria and applied algorithms to obtain a figure ranging from 0 to 100, where a lower number means the structure is in better shape.

Those with 81 or more points suffer from “potentially serious pathologies that could affect their resistant behavior” and are targeted for special oversight. There ae 66 bridges and viaducts in this category, scattered across 26 provinces. More than half of them are in the southern region of Andalusia (34), followed by Galicia with 10 and Castilla y León with nine.

A report dated October 3, which this newspaper has seen, shows that there are many other structures in Spain suffering from some form of deterioration. A score of 21 points and over means the damage “could have a pathological evolution affecting the durability or the conditions of service.”

Crisis years

Between 2009 and 2014, the worst years of the economic crisis, not a single euro was spent on bridge repairs. In 2008 the state had earmarked €11 million, and in 2015 the amount was slightly over €8 million.

Of the 22,961 elements facilitating travel on Spanish roads, 93% are deteriorated to some degree. Only 1,486 had “no evident pathologies, or showed deterioration with no relevant consequences for durability, conditions of service or safety,” according to the report.

Nearly half of bridges fall within the 41-to-60 point category, meaning that wear and tear “may entail reduced conditions of service or structure durability” and “may require action in the midterm.”

The potentially serious problems can occur in just one specific element – a support, a load-bearing tower, a stay – in which case a one-time, targeted repair can be conducted. When several elements are damaged, a complete repair is ordered.

Between 2014 and October of this year, the ministry spent around €116 million in emergency repair work to infrastructures whose state “represented a serious danger.”

The secretary general for Infrastructure, Javier Izquierdo, said that his department is planning to introduce improvements to the review system, including annual evolution reports and a technical platform to centralize control over all monitoring systems on bridges. The ministry also wants to use drones to inspect bridges with a span of over 300 meters.

Izquierdo underscored that none of the 66 structures in the worst category has any “serious problems,” and that there is no fear that any of them will collapse.

English version by Susana Urra.

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