Funding vs. Fixing – Overcoming Budget Discrepancies for Locally Owned Bridges

An article in Governing Magazine (“Analysis: Disparity Exists in Condition of Local vs. State  Bridges,” by Mike Maciag, June 4, 2013) shares the results from a review of Federal Highway Administration inspection data comparing the conditions of local and state-owned bridges, revealing that: “…bridges under local jurisdiction are more than twice as likely to be considered structurally deficient, suffering from deterioration to the bridge deck, substructure or other major component.”

Counties are responsible for more than half of the United States’ nearly 67,000 structurally deficient bridges. Yet, local governments must typically rely on real estate taxes for general fund revenues, or obtain permission from state governments and taxpayers to levy taxes that fund transportation projects. Funding that comes from states and the federal government is not enough to fix this persistent problem.

The result is patched-up, aging bridges that pose unique challenges to county engineers such as Brian Keierleber, P.E., from Buchanan County, Iowa and Lee Bjerke, P.E., from Winneshiek County, Iowa:

Brian Keierleber, P.E.: “In Buchanan County, many of the pre-1950 bridges are less than 20 ft. wide, but modern combines now can be 22 ft. wide. There are some farm equipment manufacturers who cannot legally run on the roads with full-size loads, but there is no enforcement, so they do. Closing bridges is not the best answer – this just forces the loads to travel further and destroy more miles of road. We are experiencing failures, and they will continue.”

Lee Bjerke, P.E.: “In Winneshiek County, we have 330 bridges that are required to be reported in the NBI, or National Bridge Inventory, and approximately 100 more that are not. Of these structures, 85 are structurally deficient and 60 are functionally obsolete. Some of these structures date back to the 1800s and early 1900s! Almost all are narrow and were never designed to carry the weight of 80,000 lb. trucks or the 100,000+ lb. agricultural wagons of today.  

“If a bridge is predicted to last 75 years, we should be replacing 5.7 bridges per year to keep up.  We estimate that it would cost nearly $2 million annually to keep up with our bridge infrastructure, which will never happen, so we must resort to other options, such as railroad flat car bridges on low-volume roads, salvaging the beams on replaced bridges for reuse, or bridge closures for indefinite periods of time. These fixes do not meet current design standards. They serve as a stopgap, but don’t resolve issues of width, loading or height restriction. Winneshiek County has historically made maximum property tax transfers to the road fund allowed by the Iowa Code. The road/bridge funding trend is a downward spiral that is getting steeper in grade every year.”

Unfortunately, these situations are not unique. But there is a way to move ahead despite the challenges.

No Time, No Funding – What’s the Solution? For county engineers like Brian and Lee who are facing severe time and cost challenges, there’s a new steel solution that’s free to use and can produce a customized design in less than five minutes. The Short Span Steel Bridge Alliance introduced an easy-to-use, web-based design tool called eSPAN140 that takes the data on an individual project and produces the most cost-effective steel solutions available, as well as the names, phone numbers and email addresses of manufacturers and fabricators who can provide pricing information and deliver the completed bridge to the site. Engineers can input as little information as the project’s length, width and number of striped traffic lanes. eSPAN140 can be used multiple times for additional projects. It’s available at www.espan140.com.

eSPAN140 offers viable steel design options that can ease the time and funding challenges. Get a preview of eSPAN140’s capabilities in the video at www.espan140.com, then try it out. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain!

About Rich Tavoletti

Rich Tavoletti is Director of the Short Span Steel Bridge Alliance. He is also Director of the Container Market program for the Steel Market Development Institute, a business unit of the American Iron and Steel Institute, and Executive Director of the Canned Food Alliance. Rich has extensive experience in marketing and communications. He was marketing manager at the Steel Recycling Institute. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in marketing from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at rtavoletti@steel.org.
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