Counties can’t keep up with deteriorating bridges

Ohio Department of Transportation records indicate that 2,230 bridges statewide are rated as structurally deficient, but government agencies say they lack the funds to keep up on repairs.

“There’s not enough money to stay ahead of it,” Montgomery County Engineer Paul Gruner said. “The more we let them go, the more it costs to replace them, and we need more money to be able to replace them.”

A bridge labeled structurally deficient means that it must be monitored and eventually repaired or replaced. But upkeep comes with a high price tag. Gruner points to the Third Street Bridge over the Great Miami River in downtown Dayton. It was built in 1949, but the foundation beneath it dates to 1903. Total replacement will not be complete until 2019 and will cost $10 million.

Clark County Engineer Jonathan Burr said all counties are facing a combination of mounting costs and declining revenues. Population loss means fewer people paying license plates fees that fund repair projects.

“I’m down about $700,000 last year from 2000, ” Burr said.

Shealyn Harmon of Dayton lives near the Keowee Street Bridge that was built in 1931, and is showing its age. Steel in the bridge supports were exposed in several sections of the bridge when chunks of concrete fell from the span onto a bike path below.

“I walk over here to go to the store every day and it’s dangerous,” Harmon said.

While engineers do not rate the bridge as an immediate safety problem, it is scheduled to be replaced.

Gruner said bridge replacement is scheduled on a priority basis. An analysis of state records shows the cost of bridge projects statewide has been on the rise. It grew from $570 million in 2003 to a projected $1 billion in 2014.

Worst counties

Records obtained from the ODOT indicate that Preble County ranks first in the area with the most structurally deficient bridges, with 53. Montgomery County comes in second with 48. Champaign County has the fewest with just one.

Many of the troubled bridges are short spans that go over a dry run or small creek. The majority of the large, multi-lane structures that carry the most traffic and need to be replaced are in urban areas.

Warren County ranks 61st of Ohio’s 88 counties for the number of structurally deficient bridges, yet it is the site of the biggest bridge project in the state.

The Jeremiah Morrow bridge, named after the ninth governor of Ohio, is being replaced with two new bridges. The Morrow bridge actually features twin spans that are 2,300 feet long and 239 feet high, making it the tallest bridge in Ohio. The bridge, built in 1965, carries 40,000 cars and trucks a day on Interstate 71 over the Little Miami River.

Rust and corrosion on the steel truss bridges led the state to investigate the possibility of repairing them and repainting.

“It’s rated a 5 on a scale of 0 to 9. Four is deficient, so 5 is just above deficient,” said Brandon Collett, ODOT Bridge Engineer.

Collett said painting alone would cost $10 million, so in the long run it was more cost-effective to replace the structures. Construction began in 2010 and will continue through 2016 at a cost of $89 million.

“The hardest part is the height has posed some challenges because you have to get all of your materials and have to do everything at a greater height than normal bridges,” said Dan Mendel, ODOT transportation engineer and project manager.

Funding options

A report from the American Society of Civil Engineers found that the nation is spending $12.8 billion a year on bridge projects, but should be spending $20.5 billion annually to keep up with the number of bridges in need of repair or replacement.

Association president-elect Randy Over, a civil engineer in Cleveland, said current funding relies on a combination of the gas tax, license plate fees and municipal income taxes. But Over said that an increased need for money, coupled with vehicles that use less fuel or no gas at all, will require a change in how projects are funded.

“We are approaching the time of a transition to a different formula,” he said.

With no dramatic changes in funding on the horizon, county engineers expect the struggle to keep up with deteriorating bridges to continue. Clark County’s Burr said some costs have doubled in the last few years.

The biggest bridge project in Clark County this year will be replacement of the Selma Pike bridge over the Little Miami River, anticipated to cost nearly $1 million. Montgomery County, meanwhile, has 34 major bridge repair or replacement projects scheduled through 2020.

Butler County has 401 bridges and five of them have lowered weight limits due to structural issues.

“We have to stretch every bridge to an 80-year life cycle,” Butler County Engineer Greg Wilkens said.

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