County bridges in fair shape

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

2 of Barry County's 105 bridges in critical condition

The Missouri Department of Transportation, on a shoestring budget, is responsible for inspecting and maintaining almost 10,400 bridges in the state, and about 641 of them are considered to be in critical condition.

The average age of bridges in the state is 44 years old, and most were designed to last only 50 years. More than 1,600 of the bridges are more than 75 years old, and about 5,000 are 50 or older.

According to the National Bridge Inspection Standards, the standard all states use when bridges are inspected, bridges are rated on a nine-point scale, with a 9 being a new bridge, and a 2 being a closed bridge. The ratings are based on the materials, physical condition of the deck, the superstructure (the supports immediately beneath the driving surface) and the substructures (foundation and supporting posts and piers).

Bridges that fall into critical-condition carry ratings of 3 or 4.

According to MoDOT, Barry County has approximately 105 bridges. To be considered a bridge, the structure must span at least 20 feet.

"That can be anything from several pipes put adjacent to each other, or a low-water crossing, or a 1,000-foot bridge," said Dave O'Connor, MoDOT district bridge engineer for the southwest district who has worked for the department for over 30 years and covers 21 counties in the state. "So, it can be a very basic structure, but most times we're looking at concrete-box culverts and stand-structures. The condition of the bridges in Barry County are, overall, in good condition. We just have a few that we're looking at adding to the [critical list] program because they're in poor condition and we need to try to rehabilitate them."

One with a 3-rating is the bridge on Highway VV, a mile south of Highway Z southeast of Monett at Pleasant Ridge. Another 3-rating bridge is the one on Highway 97, south of Highway 60 at Capps Creek.

"Given our funding, we're having to make hard decisions about where we can spend our money," O'Connor said. "In this district alone, I've got about 1,150 stand-type structures, so we have to make decisions about which ones we can fix. So, we look at traffic volumes, and how much a bridge is used. We keep a five-year program, and recently, we've had to make decisions because we can't get every one on there."

Statewide, about 641 bridges are considered to be in critical condition, up from 591 in 2014.

"A 3-rating is the worst we have where a bridge is still open to traffic," O'Connor said. "We inspect about 2,000 bridges every two years, between state bridges and city and county structures, some more frequently."

The problem, however, is there is no funding to repair or replace them. To replace the bridges would cost in excess of $820 million, which is not possible with current transportation funding. Missouri has the nation's seventh-largest system of roads and bridges, yet funding comes in at 47th in the nation. Therefore, engineers must prioritize which bridges they can fix and which they can't. So when a bridge receives a poor rating, MoDOT will either restrict weight, or close them, which affects transit time, and ultimately, the economy.

According to MoDOT, the average car weighs 1.5 tons, the average truck weighs 3 tons, the average loaded school bus weighs 17 tons, the average loaded garbage truck weighs 25 tons and the average loaded delivery truck weighs 6 tons.

O'Connor said a fuel tax is the department's primary funding, but it hasn't increased to keep up with costs.

"The voters have rejected anything that's been put out there," he said. "We do our best to keep all the bases covered and address all the needs," O'Connor said. "Given the funding we've got, it's a struggle. Our funding stream has not kept up with the increases. Do you pay the same for a gallon of milk you did 10 years ago? No. It's considerably more. That's why my job becomes more and more difficult, because I have to keep bridges going longer. I just think that everyone is struggling with money right now, and no one wants to vote for a tax."

"We did a lot of work on the Safe and Sound program, where we took care of 802 bridges across the state," said David Taylor, MoDOT senior traffic specialist. "That was finished in December. There were some funding packages passed, and the only way we could get the money from the bond. I know we make debt payments every year, and we have some bonding payments we're paying on."

O'Connor said when he and his crews inspect bridges, they look at three primary components: The substructure, the superstructure, the girders (steal beams or concrete that support the deck) and the deck. A rating of 4 or less on the three areas classifies a bridge as structurally deficient.

"We give ratings to each of those, and other components in the surrounding area, such as is there erosion around the bridge that could threaten the safety of the bridge, and guardrails," he said. "These are all things we look at and try to identify deficiencies to bring those back and at least try to repair them."

O'Connor said most people generally don't think about the condition of a bridge as long as they can get across.

"I have very few structures I am concerned about and the one's I do, I've taken care of them," he said. "I take my job seriously and my crew does, too. The workload is lengthy, so we have to prioritize frequently."

For more information on the condition of bridges in Barry County or in Missouri, people may visit www.modot.org/bridges.

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