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Bridging the gap; Lack of funding clouds future for state’s bridges

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Kevin Hoffman
June 27, 2011

Nearly one in 12 Wisconsin bridges is considered “structurally deficient,” including 46 in Rock and Walworth counties, according to state records.


A bridge is labeled deficient based on inspections of various parts of the structure. Most deficiencies are not serious, but some officials worry that a lack of federal funding will allow small problems to grow quickly.


That’s not the case, said Tom Lorfeld, engineer with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Lorfeld acknowledged Wisconsin has a backlog of deficient bridges, but the risk to drivers is almost microscopic, he said.


“Deficient bridges are seldom in danger of failure in any way,” he said. “Even if one were to experience a problem, it would typically be a repairable, usually foreseeable problem, and almost never catastrophic failure.”


Transportation for America, a national coalition working to funnel money back into road repair, created a website detailing the location and condition of bridges nationwide.


David Goldberg, the organization’s spokesman, agreed most deficient bridges don’t pose immediate risks—it’s the future he’s worried about.


The average U.S. bridge is 42 years old. There’s an unwritten rule that bridges are generally built with a 50-year lifespan, forcing many people to consider what the paved landscape will look like a decade from now, he said.


“I don’t think you should be concerned for your safety in the near term,” Goldberg said. “You should be concerned not that you’ll fall into a river or highway below but that the deterioration, if it’s not handled quickly, can accelerate rather rapidly. Then one day you’re stuck in traffic because only one lane can get across the bridge.”


Inspectors are supposed to examine bridges every two years. When a bridge scores a 4 or lower on a 10-point inspection scale, it is categorized as structurally deficient.


The state can take various measures to protect those bridges and drivers, including weight limits or lane closures, Goldberg said. A small, 82-year-old bridge northwest of Orfordville scored deficient on its superstructure, and signs warn trucks weighing more than 8 tons not to cross it.


The bridge on Old Highway 11 built in 1940 over Bass Creek doesn’t include any signs, despite scoring deficient on the three major inspection areas. The bridge has scabs of blacktop plugging potholes, but the state believes it poses no danger to the 450 cars that use it daily.


Such bridges are spread all across the state, including 29 in Rock County and 17 in Walworth County. One of every 12 bridges in Wisconsin is likely to be deficient, but the state still ranks 15th when compared with the condition of bridges in other states, according to a study drafted by Transportation for America.


“We typically rank in the top 10 of states with the lowest percentage of deficient bridges,” Lorfeld said.


“Insufficient funding is the primary reason for our list of deficient bridges,” he said. “Manpower is not an issue. If we had the money, we could relatively quickly get all our bridges out of deficient status.”


An additional 17 bridges in Rock County are considered “functionally obsolete,” though they almost never pose risk to drivers, he said. Bridges are functionally obsolete when engineering standards change over time, kicking older bridges out of compliance even though nothing might be wrong with them.


Something needs to be done, Goldberg said. He argues signs and temporary shutdowns are just Band-Aids covering a more serious problem.


A report released in May by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute estimates it would take $677.5 million over the next 10 years to address repairs for state-owned bridges. That doesn’t include dozens of county- and town-owned bridges in Rock and Walworth counties that are in disrepair.


Regardless of what happens in Madison, it’s still difficult to determine whether the problem could be fixed.


The Interstate highway system, which includes three deficient bridges in Rock County, is 90 percent federally funded. That number slips to 80 percent for state highways.


Goldberg’s biggest fear isn’t necessarily the condition of bridges but what will happen if funding continues to decline.


“In fiscal terms, it’s a death spiral,” he said. “Things are not looking terribly promising. There is this budget-cutting fever at the moment, and even though there is a pretty broad consensus that transportation is important, Congress hasn’t been terribly supportive.”


He said federal lawmakers are discussing a two-year stopgap that would continue funding at current levels. The hope is by 2013, the economy will be in better shape to withstand an increase in transportation maintenance funds, he said.



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