Bridge upkeep presents challenge

Published 8:00 pm Sunday, June 10, 2012

Maintenance of local bridges represents an important aspect of local officials’ duties.

     However, as funding gets tighter and bridges age, fulfilling that responsibility becomes more of a challenge.

     In Mississippi, some bridge repair and maintenance money comes from the Local System Bridge Program. The state program was started in 1994 and its purpose is to help counties with funding to repair or replace bridges.

     The program targets deficient bridges maintained by counties or municipalities. Excluded are bridges on other aid systems, such as federal roads, and those under 20 feet in length.

     This year, however, the Mississippi Legislature failed to allocate the funding for the program, thus leaving counties with less money for bridge repairs. The move could have particular impact on Lincoln County.

     Lincoln County is home to 303 bridges, which is the third-highest total out of Mississippi’s 82 counties.

     Of those 303 bridges, 58 are rated as being deficient and eligible for LSBP funding. Deficient bridges are those with a sufficiency rating of 50 or below out of a possible score of 100.

     In all, Lincoln County has 85 bridges with sufficient ratings under 50, but not all are eligible for LSBP money.

     Sufficiency ratings are an indictor of how badly a bridge needs to replaced. Ratings take into consideration such factors as traffic, width, deck rating and other measurements.

     District Four Supervisor Eddie Brown’s area includes 21 bridges on the LSBP-eligible list.

     “When you look at these bridges, to replace some costs $300,000 each,” he said.

     Jeff Dungan of Dungan Engineering, which inspects county bridges, said bridge inspections are critical.

     “When bridges are inspected, we make a determination when they cannot support at least 6,000 pounds,” he said. “We close the ones that cannot support at least that much.”

     Dungan said bridges with scores under 50 are inspected every year to ensure they’re safe, with all other bridges being inspected every other year.

     Lincoln County was scheduled to have $2,177,000 during this supervisors’ term for bridge repair and construction. That number went down by 25 percent, or $544,000, when the state failed to approve the funding for this year.

     While supervisors have some money to repair bridges out of their own funds, it is not nearly enough to replace bridges. A fix is only temporary as well, meaning more work and money must be put toward the bridge at a later date.

     Dungan said about 40 bridges have been replaced in Lincoln County since 1996 with LSBP money.

     “The bridges we’re putting in now should last 50 years,” he said.

     But the old bridges that exist now on many roads are built from timber and do not stand up to the weight of modern trucks and busses.

     “Most new trucks cannot travel on bridges built 20 years ago as the trucks weigh around 84,000 pounds,” Dungan said.

     Dozens of bridges in the county are posted at weight limits under 10,000 pounds.

     If a truck driver misses the weight limit sign and crosses the bridge anyway, serious damage can be done to the bridge. Such was the case on Caseyville Road over Lake Creek in the Homochitto National Forest in 2011.

     A truck driver crossed the wooden bridge, which was posted at 10,000 pounds, and damaged it severely. A motorist later saw the damage to the bridge and reported it to county officials, who closed the bridge.

     “That truck driver is fortunate the bridge did not collapse and he was not seriously injured, as that bridge is very tall,” said Dungan. “We’re also fortunate the motorist called in what they saw and did not attempt to cross a damaged bridge.”

     The National Forest Service has agreed to finance a new bridge at that location. The county is currently waiting for those funds to be released.

     But many other bridges lack the necessary money to replace them. The impact damaged or closed bridges has on an area is large since it can affect almost every person living around it in some way.

     On May 21, Lincoln County supervisors all signed a letter and sent it to their area representatives asking for funding for the Local System Bridge Program. The letter explained the importance of the funding and asked for the $20 million scheduled statewide for this year, as well as additional money if it could be found for the state’s 1,281 deficient bridges.

     However, the likelihood of that money becoming available from the Legislature this year is low. Area lawmakers speaking at Monday’s supervisors meeting all expressed skepticism that a special session to address the issue would be called.

     “We were told early in the session we would probably not see any bonds this year,” said District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto. “I don’t think a special session will be called. You’re going to be a year behind.”

     Moak agreed that bridges are important.

     “They affect everyone,” he said. “They are very important to communities. We need government money to keep infrastructure and basic services going. Not funding this does not work for the counties.”

     Another aspect of bridges is their impact on school buses and the transportation of students to and from school.

     Lincoln County Schools Transportation Director Bruce Falvey said he is often contacted about bridge repairs, damage or closures that force him to relay the message to drivers.

     “Every supervisor has contacted me at one point about a bridge,” Falvey said.

     If a bridge is posted for under 30,000 pounds, which is the case for dozens of bridges in the county, it is unsafe for a bus to travel. Falvey must change the bus route to go around the bridge.

     “There are two re-routes that stand out to me,” he said.

     One was on California Road south of Loyd Star.

     “We changed which buses picked up students on the route to go around the bridge,” Falvey said.

     Another problem bridge for Falvey has been one on Mt. Zion Road north of Mt. Zion Church before it intersects with Interstate 55.

     “We had to turn the bus around and go around the bridge instead of crossing it,” he said. “It adds 15-20 minutes to the morning and evening bus route.”

     While working within their means to keep bridges up to shape, supervisors remain hopeful that more funding becomes available in the future.

     Standing next to a bridge in need of repair one recent morning, Brown said he wished he could do more to fix bridges in Lincoln County.

     “We have so many deficient bridges,” he said. “The thing is, they’re getting worse every day. I hope something happens that helps us, because we clearly need it.”