When Washington County employees began tearing down the Miley Wagon Bridge near Baldwin earlier this year, there was no doubt about how the county was going to stay within its estimated $400,000 budget for the project: in-house manpower and resourceful purchasing.
In this case, said Shawn Shrum, the county’s assistant road superintendent, that meant supporting the new bridge with used beams purchased from another county that had torn down another bridge for renovations.
“We buy used, clean up the shoes, do what we need to do,” Shrum said. “I think everybody’s in the same boat.”
The Miley Wagon Bridge, one of 428 bridges in the county, was a classic example of what the Federal Highway Administration describes as both “functionally obsolete” and “structurally deficient:” a bridge too narrow for firetrucks or school buses to cross, and too weak to permit loads heavier than 7 tons — less than a fifth of the 40-ton national standard.
As budgets at every level of government keep tightening, maintaining public infrastructure continues to be a war fought against two constants: time and money.
Of the nearly 12,700 bridges in Arkansas, almost 1,000 are classified as structurally deficient and more than 2,000 others are classified as functionally obsolete, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
According to the National Bridge Inventory rating system, a bridge is considered structurally deficient if the riding surface, superstructure (beams and girders) or substructure (piers and foundations) is rated below 4 on a 10-point scale. A bridge is considered functionally obsolete if its design is found to be unable to accommodate modern traffic — often meaning the bridge is too narrow or its clearance is too low.
Neither classification, in and of itself, means a bridge is unsafe, said Nancy Singer, a spokesman for the administration.
“Structurally deficient means a bridge is in need of repair or closer monitoring, but doesn’t mean it’s unsafe or in danger of imminent collapse,” Singer said.
The subject of bridge maintenance attracted national attention after an 18-wheeler struck a bridge girder on the Skagit River Bridge near Seattle, causing a portion of the 58-year-old bridge to collapse into the river below. Although the bridge was classified as functionally obsolete, administration officials have emphasized that the bridge — which was inspected in 2012 — was structurally sound.
“The Washington collapse wasn’t something that inherently had to do with the bridge,” Singer said.
Federal guidelines require all bridges to be inspected at least once every 24 months. The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department has 24 bridge inspection teams, including 23 that are situated throughout the department’s 10 state districts, and one statewide team based in Little Rock, according to Mike Hill, a heavy-bridge maintenance engineer with the department.
Maintenance for about 60 percent of Arkansas bridges are the responsibility of the state, and the rest are the responsibility of counties, cities or other entities.
Hill said the inspection teams average about 600 inspections each month. The teams report their findings to both federal administrators and the bridge owners, who are expected to maintain the bridges from their own funds. Hill said it was unusual for a bridge to go from being classified as usable to unusable between any two inspections.
“Bridges are built for long-term things,” Hill said. “It’s not something you notice one year to the next. It’s the slow deterioration that starts building up.”
The department, which has an annual budget of approximately $1 billion for both 2013 and 2014, spends about $4.2 million each year inspecting both state-owned and locally owned bridges, said Randy Ort, an agency spokesman.
Although the department also receives about $70 million in federal bridge-replacement funds and about $15 million in matching state funds each year, overall highway funds provided through federal and state motor fuel taxes have decreased as vehicles become more fuel-efficient, Hill said.
"In maintenance, none of the highway departments are getting as much money as we used to,” Hill said. “Funding hasn’t kept up with the rate of inflation, and as cars use less gas, we get less gas tax.”
Despite decreases, the state’s bridge-maintenance budget still dwarfs those of individual counties, and the difference is often reflected in the condition of the bridges that fall into each entity’s purview.
In Madison County, for example, where more than one-fifth of the county’s 144 bridges are considered structurally deficient and another 13 are functionally obsolete, allocating funds from the county’s $3.4 million road and bridge budget is a matter of constant prioritization.
“That’s a tough one right there,” said Weaver. “If there’s a weight-limit sign down, or a railing down, we put those up right away. The rest, we try to address as they come in, based on the severity.”
Weight-limit signs are a common sign of bridge deterioration throughout the state. When inspectors determine that a bridge can’t safely handle the 40-ton weight standard, the bridge must be “posted” with the reduced weight limit. Thirty-nine bridges in Madison County are posted.
“It’s a pretty good expense just to keep up those weight-limit signs,” Weaver said. “They get stolen, knocked down or just disappear.”
Weaver said much of the county’s budget for bridge maintenance goes to repairing the ends of bridges, which tend to be gravel constructions, easing traffic onto and off of the bridges themselves. Heavy rains and flooding can quickly cause damage that can take road crews days or weeks to repair.
Weaver said that simply closing lesser-used bridges that, while not unsafe, require unending maintenance, wasn’t an option in his county.
“We’re not at that point where we’re going to start taking any out for lack of traffic flow,” Weaver said. “There are so many of our county roads that cross creeks and rivers, you would eliminate access if you took out the bridge. We can’t feasibly do that.”
In larger, more affluent counties such as Washington County, where the $9.5 million road fund accounts for about 16 percent of the county’s total 2013 budget, just keeping up with the maintenance of the hundreds of bridges inside county lines often forces administrators to bring in private contractors when time outweighs cost concern.
“It’s challenging, because we have so many,” Shrum said. “Like every other county, they’re getting older. When we do it ourselves, that’s a good year to complete a bridge. But money-wise, it’s so much cheaper to do it ourselves, to use our own labor.”
While the county is keeping the reconstruction of the Miley Wagon Bridge in-house, administrators contracted with the Fayetteville-based branch of APAC, a national engineering and construction firm, to expand the century-old Tilly Willy Dam near Lake Wilson in Fayetteville to a two-lane bridge for about $1.7 million in 2012.
Washington County Judge Marilyn Edwards said that when it decided to replace Woolsey Bridge, an 88-year-old truss bridge located near West Fork, administrators elected to pay the state about $15,000 to engineer the new bridge for the county. Edwards said that although each of the county’s bridges was important to public safety, it was still a matter of pacing and prioritization.
“You don’t want to take on more bridges than you can tackle,” Edwards said. “You take on two or three, and finish those before you move on. And no matter how much money you have, it’s never enough.”
Originally published June 2, 2013 in the Northwest Edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette