Nebraska bridges: Falling down?

Joe Jordan | Nebraska Watchdog

October 13, 2013 was cool and dry with little wind, so you can’t blame Lincoln’s weather. But that was the day a wheel on a Lancaster County school bus dropped right through a wood-deck bridge.

“We have concerns with school buses on some of our rural roads,” County Engineer Pam Dingman recently testified. “It was fortunate that only the bus driver was on the bridge, not the children.”

Nearly one out of five Nebraska bridges are in poor shape, according to one federal report.

And bad bridges in Nebraska are anything but rare, in fact only five other states are in worse shape. As Nebraska Watchdog reported earlier this year, a federal government study found 18 percent of the state’s 15,000 bridges in poor condition—the national average is 10 percent.

And some Nebraska counties envy those statewide numbers.

Why?

Well, according to that same federal study, 50 percent of the bridges in Otoe County are suffering.

Saunders County has over 400 bridges— one for every 42 residents, more than any other Nebraska county— and 40 percent of the bridges are labeled “structurally deficient.” They’re not falling down, but they need some work.

“One-third are safe, two-thirds need to be looked at,” Highway Supervisor Steve Mika tells Nebraska Watchdog.

Nebraska Watchdog Photo

State Sen. Annette Dubas says Nebraska’s problem bridges have reached a point “of no return.”

According to Mika, six years ago, 100 Saunders County bridges were closed. Today that number is down to 20 but those other 80 aren’t in the best shape.

“When I say opened, they were repaired to a point that we could open them. You know, usually it’s still a low tonnage, still on the clock as far as an older bridge,” Mika told the Legislature’s Transportation Committee in October.

In addition, bad bridges are said to be of “critical importance” because they’re cutting into the state’s number one money-maker: agriculture. The committee—which is expected to soon release a full report on financing, maintaining and replacing bridges—heard complaints that some farmers and ranchers are forced to repeatedly drive 15-20 miles out of their way; wasting fuel and paying extra, over and over again.

But fixing all these sagging structures isn’t cheap. Mika says it costs Saunders County between $300,000 and $350,000 per bridge.

Federal funds for bridge repairs are virtually non-existent, according to former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood who told 60 Minutes that Congress doesn’t have the political courage to do what it takes.

Nebraska Watchdog Photo

State officials repeatedly hear from farmers complaining that bad bridges—some closed, many others unable to hold tractors and combines—send them miles out of their way, wasting fuel.

“They don’t want to spend the money,” said LaHood. “They don’t want to raise the taxes.”

Local tax dollars aren’t easy to come by either.

“We’re sort of in a little bit of a box,” says Larry Dix, the executive director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials.

According to Dix, if Saunders County set out to immediately fix 10 bridges the county board would have to increase the property tax rate 10 cents.

“We would immediately have recall petitions out,” Dix told the Transportation Committee.

At the same time Republican Gov.-elect Pete Ricketts promised voters he would “significantly lower the property tax burden” across the state.

By the way the Nebraska Farm Bureau endorsed Ricketts and puts lower property taxes high on it’s Christmas wish list.

Committee Chairwoman, Sen. Annette Dubas says the bridge mess has “reached its point of no return” and says her panel’s report won’t just wind up “on the shelf.”

Contact Joe Jordan at joe@nebraskawatchdog.org.

Joe can be heard on Omaha’s KFAB radio every Monday morning at 7:40, KLIN in Lincoln every Tuesday morning at 7:35 and KHAS-AM in Hastings every Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. and 12:45 p.m.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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