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Feds give counties, engineers a break — Engineers will be paid hourly rate for bridge inspections

Federal transportation bosses have passed the peace pipe to counties and their engineers with new bridge inspection rules favorable to the local level.

County engineers statewide will be paid hourly rates instead of lump-sum payments for inspecting county bridges during the 2018 inspection cycle, and the Mississippi Office of State Aid Road Construction will pick up the tab with federal funds. The new rules appear to be a step toward reconciliation among counties, the state and the feds, all three of which have been in the midst of a historic falling-out over the feds’ insistence on third-party inspections and widespread bridge closures.

“They’ve been doing these bridge inspections for years and years, but we want to take it to another level so the federal government has an increased confidence in what we’re doing,” said new State Aid Engineer Harry Lee James. “The good thing is it will be paid for with federal funds — the first round will always be more expensive because you’re taking that first look at setting a baseline, but things should get better from there. It’s an evolving situation.”

County engineers were previously paid $350 per bridge inspection, regardless of the size of the structure, and $120 for scour-critical bridges in danger of washing out. The new agreement has a safety mandate for two-man inspection teams and requires increased documentation of bridge conditions.

Lincoln County engineer Ryan Holmes told supervisors his firm, Dungan Engineering, would begin inspecting 142 concrete and steel bridges in Lincoln County in October, with all reporting expected to wrap up late next winter. Federal inspectors will inspect another 54 timber bridges in the county this year, but those inspections could come back in-house for counties next year if federal inspections go well this fall, Holmes said.

The new bridge inspection agreements could ease tension among supervisors and their county engineers, who were cut out of the loop a year ago when the Federal Highway Administration ordered State Aid to let a $30 million contract with several out-of-state engineering firms to begin inspecting county bridges. Counties had always controlled the local bridge inspection process, but the feds took over after finding high failure rates on a random sampling of a dozen bridges statewide.

Supervisors statewide have been in an uproar over the inspections, and fingers have been pointed in all directions. Blame has been cast toward the Legislature for bailing on the Local System Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program and failing to come up with a new transportation funding plan. Two counties sued Gov. Phil Bryant in an unsuccessful attempt to stop his emergency declaration ordering further closures, and the governor accused supervisors of slacking in his response.

“We hope things are moving in a positive direction,” Holmes said. “The federal government has told State Aid there won’t be any more flat fees. It’s not fair to anyone because these bridges are not cookie-cutters.”

Lincoln County started the process with 108 bridges built on wooden substructures — the second-highest number of timber bridges in the state — and has been hit particularly hard by the inspections. Since last July, supervisors have rebuilt or replaced 28 bridges, with eight more in the design phase and four each either under construction or being bid out to contractors.

Supervisors took out a $5 million loan to pay for the unplanned projects last October and have already spent more than $3 million.

Holmes also told supervisors the inspection cycle would likely stretch out to a year-long process, moving away from the all-at-once approach as manpower needs increase.

“I think the burden to inspect these bridges should lighten up,” he said.

Inspection rules call for timber bridges to be inspected annually, while concrete and steel bridges are inspected every two years. As Lincoln County continues to knock down its timber bridges and replace them with stronger structures, long-term inspection costs should decline, despite potentially higher costs per inspection.

Engineering firms generally charge between $100 to $200 per hour for professional services, depending on the engineer’s qualifications. Holmes said FHWA will continue to pay for local bridge inspections in the future so long as federal funds are made available.

“We’re in much better shape replacing these bridges,” said District 4 Supervisor Eddie Brown. “Next time we inspect, a lot of those old timber bridges will be new concrete.”