The deck of Sorrels Overpass looks like a patchwork quilt stretched 153 feet over Interstate 70. It supports hundreds of vehicles a day; commuters, shoppers, students, the not-so-infrequent 20-plus-ton cement mixer.
In less than three seconds, a motorist can zoom under the bridge and in the work-a-day rush probably not give its condition a thought; not the multitude of asphalt squares covering holes in the deck, not the missing chunks of crumbled concrete at the southern side.
Edmund Moody, a bridge inspector for the Missouri Department of Transportation’s Central District, which includes Boone County, said that although the deck’s poor condition doesn’t threaten collapse, it is a problem, especially for the thousands of drivers who pass under the bridge every day and don’t want a hunk of crumbling concrete crashing through their windshield.
“Something could fall on the interstate,” Moody said. “That has happened in other places.”
Sorrels Overpass is not the only state bridge in Boone County that’s in sorry shape. Nearly 20 percent of the county’s 327 highway bridges are rated deficient, according to the Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inventory. Another 20 bridges, including Sorrels Overpass, are deemed in serious or poor condition because of ragged decks, I-beams weakened from rust or poor traffic-management features.
Many of these worst-of-the-worst bridges have been in poor condition for the past five years. Sorrels Overpass was even identified as a necessary major street project in 2004 by a Columbia transportation advisory committee but three years later has yet to receive repairs.
Mike Harms, a structural services engineer with the Transportation Department’s Bridge Division, said political and financial considerations prevent some bridges from receiving an ideal level of maintenance.
“We attack what we can with the funding we have available,” Harms said. “We’re given what we’re given, and we try to make it work with what we have out there.”
The Transportation Department selects bridges for repair based on structural evaluations, the amount of traffic crossing the bridge and political considerations, such as requests for bridge projects from elected officials.
But the scant financial resources provided to the Transportation Department — more than $1.94 billion over the past 10 years, according to the department — might be allowing bridges across the state to deteriorate. Nearly one in three Missouri bridges is rated deficient. Of about 24,000 bridges, more than 1,000 are considered in serious or poor condition.
To improve the condition of state bridges, the Transportation Department launched the 800 Better Bridges Program this year. It aims to rehabilitate or replace 802 bridges by 2012 and maintain those structures in at least good condition until 2025. Fourteen bridges in Boone County, including Sorrels Overpass, are targeted by the Better Bridges Program.
Mike Dusenberg, a Transportation Department planning manager for the Central District, said two teams of design contractors are evaluating the 802 selected bridges and preparing to submit initial bids for the projects June 20.
Transportation Department management will review the proposals in late June and early July and could select contractors in July for final approval by the highway commission. Construction could begin by mid-September at the earliest.
Many details concerning the program, including the final cost, will not be known until the Transportation Department selects a contractor, although the entire program will cost an estimated $400 million to $600 million.
“A good number of the bridges will probably need to be replaced entirely, but that’s up to the design contractors,” Dusenberg said. “And what bridges get fixed first depends on the contractor’s plans, too.”
Though many experts consider the Better Bridges Program laudable, it still leaves 54 deficient bridges in Boone County and more than 6,700 deficient bridges statewide untouched. Adding to the problem, Harms said, is that another 250 or so bridges will have deteriorated into the deficient category by 2012.
An unwillingness to spend
Charles Nemmers, director of the Transportation Infrastructure Center at MU, said the Transportation Department is actually doing a fine job maintaining bridges with the money available. The problem, he said, is that politicians and taxpayers alike are unwilling to provide as much money as they should for something as unexciting as bridge maintenance.
He likened taking care of bridges to taking care of a car: If the owner shows it love when it’s in good condition — changing the oil, rotating the tires and such — maintaining the vehicle when it’s older will be less expensive and less time-consuming.
“In a general sense, it’s hard to energize people to change their oil or fix up something before it deteriorates,” Nemmers said. “People are saying, ‘Jeez! A million dollars just to fix things up. We want a new road here, a new bridge there.’ But you don’t add a new room to your house when your roof is leaking, and you don’t wait to put on shingles until the roof is collapsed.”
Shane Creech, manager of design and construction for the Boone County Public Works Department, agreed.
“I think we as a state have been lacking in tax revenue based on the number of lane miles we have,” he said. “And that goes for more than just bridges. Additional tax revenue for the Transportation Department would provide additional maintenance. It’s no different for the county.”
Indeed, Missouri ranks first among Midwestern states in the number of miles of highways it maintains, but it ranks last in terms of revenue per mile of highway.
The county Public Works Department gets most of its money for maintenance projects from a half-cent sales tax. County officials are planning a fall ballot issue that could extend that tax or call for additional taxes to pay for road needs.
Boone County projects
This year, Boone County will spend about $1.5 million to rehabilitate eight local bridges: the McBaine Bridge, the River Road Bridge and bridges on Marshall Lane, Riley Road, Rolling Hills Road South, Nashville Church Road, Andrew Sapp Road and Rolling Hills North Road. About $725,000 of that comes from federal funding, and the $1.5 million does not include design or inspection costs.
The county projects are aimed at smaller bridges that have been taken on in addition to the state’s 800 Better Bridges Program. Bridges the county must maintain are too small to be included in the National Bridge Inventory.
Nemmers said the Better Bridges Program, like the Smoother, Safer Sooner roads initiative approved in 2004, is a step in the right direction but doesn’t reach far enough. But the Transportation Department, he said, is forced by its lack of funding to fix only the worst bridges, allowing structures in good and fair condition that don’t require immediate attention to fall into a state of disrepair.
Ultimately, it is less expensive to keep bridges in good condition with regular maintenance, but politicians and bureaucrats looking at lean annual budgets sacrifice the future to mend immediate concerns.
“The real secret is, if you keep the good stuff good, over time you have the resources to take care of the bad stuff,” he said. “But that takes a long time, and sometimes that time is longer than the election cycles.”
House Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said “folks” agree the Transportation Department is underfunded, and it is important, especially for agriculture, to maintain state bridges. He suggested the Transportation Department create a comprehensive infrastructure plan that would allow an examination of the entire state highway system.
This does not mean, however, that Harris wants to start throwing additional funding packages at the Transportation Department right away.
“But, in addition, we need to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars and encourage increased accountability, efficiency and transparency,” Harris said.
The condition of Missouri bridges received statewide attention earlier this year when a chunk of concrete fell off a bridge spanning Interstate 55 near St. Louis. The bridge was not rated in poor condition at the time, and investigators concluded a combination of ice and salt corroded the concrete. No one was injured, but the Transportation Department reacted by repairing several similarly designed bridges.
Not necessarily dangerous
However, Moody, who inspects more than 1,000 bridges a year, said the poor ratings of state bridges do not mean a third of the structures are on the verge of collapsing on or under passing motorists.
“Yes, there are some bad bridges out there, but, right off the top of my head, I can’t think of a bridge in the Central District that needs to be replaced yesterday,” he said.
He said some bridges that are designated for repairs, such as the U.S. 63 span over Turkey Creek, have cracks and water damage that, if left unchecked or if used by an overloaded truck, could pose serious threats. But other bridges have poor ratings because the structures do not accommodate traffic well; they have load capacities considered insufficient by modern engineering standards, they’re too narrow or they have roads that approach at sharp angles.
Traffic-management issues are not mere technicalities or excuses for deficient ratings, though. Harms said narrow bridges, odd angles of approach and low-load capacities are serious problems that can lead to increased traffic accidents and further damage to bridges that already take a pounding from the elements.
“They’re still considered deficient,” he said. “For example, if you have a bridge that is load-posted for 10 tons and you have something that goes over that’s bigger, it could cause damage or a collapse.”
And Moody said it might not collapse as a heavy truck or farm equipment passes, but days, weeks or even months later.
Nemmers said that while the problem might seem far away and unimportant, people need to invest more in infrastructure now or pay for it later.
“When you turn on the light switch, you expect the lights to go on,” he said. “You only get upset when the lights don’t go on. That’s sort of the way we are with bridges and highways. We just expect them to be there, and we don’t expect them to fall down.”