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It’s agreed: Bridges need work, but who will pay?

Mackinac Trail Bridge over Chubb Creek, Mackinac County.

Mackinac Trail Bridge over Chubb Creek, Mackinac County.

By Danielle Woodward
Capital News Service

LANSING — Officials are predicting it will take $101 million annually in additional funding to save Michigan’s deteriorating bridges.

State-owned bridges need about $70 million for repair and bridges owned by local agencies like counties, cities and villages need $31 million more, said Jeff Cranson, director of communications for the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Gov. Rick Snyder recently announced one in eight bridges is rated structurally deficient, meaning it needs to be monitored and inspected regularly. Michigan has approximately 220 bridges. Wayne County has the most with 37 bridges.

“Bridges are rated as structurally deficient, functionally obsolete or in good condition,” said Lance Binoniemi, vice president of governmental affairs at the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association.

The three major elements of a bridge are decks, beams and supporting substructure. If any one of these is rated poor during routine inspection, the bridge falls into the structurally deficient category, Cranson said.

The deterioration is mainly a result of aging and has been worsened by heavy flooding over the past few years, said Monica Ware, public relations officer for the County Road Association of Michigan.

“Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation built the roads and bridges that we have today and most of them are facing the end of their lifespan without the proper upkeep or a replacement plan in place,” Ware said.

Cranson said although there is no immediate danger to drivers, the down side lies in having to close bridges to keep the public safe. That affects businesses and the public, Cranson said.

Ware said, “I don’t think Michigan residents think about how much closing these bridges affects our lives,” Ware said. “If an ambulance or fire truck has to go out of their way because of a closed bridge, that increases the response time and could be the difference between life or death.”

Bridges in bad shape are sometimes subjected to weight limits so heavy trucks can’t go over them, Binoniemi said.

As a result, public schools are seeing a direct impact to their bus systems.

Ware explained, “A school district in St. Joseph County had to run a second bus route for a weight-restricted bridge, requiring extra money for things like the driver’s salary and the cost of the bus. These are funds that could be going into the classroom.”

Bridge closings have become increasingly common in cities across Michigan.

For example, Binoniemi said, the University Drive Bridge over Interstate 75 in Oakland County was closed temporarily this winter for emergency repairs and a stretch on I-94 in Jackson has been closed because it is unsafe to drive over.

Cranson said if the University Drive Bridge could be replaced, it would cost roughly $3 to $4 million. Since it is part of an interchange, the entire interchange needs to be considered for upgrade, which would cost a lot more.

The cost of keeping up good and fair bridges should be included in any spending plan, Cranson said. It is much cheaper and more efficient to have a preventive maintenance plan than to replace or repair them.

“Our plan to help extend the life of our bridges is to address the minor deficiencies before they become major, doing work on their decks and joints,” said Rebecca Curtis, bridge manager engineer for the Department of Transportation. “Working on these aspects prevents water damage and deterioration to the whole bridge.”

Ware said, “The Kent County Road Commission pioneered in using preventive maintenance on their bridges for years and has better bridge conditions than many surrounding counties.”

Every dollar put into preventive maintenance saves $6-14 in repair or replacement that would happen later, Ware said.

Ware said, this is a statewide and a national problem, but it is much worse in Michigan, where bridges have been underfunded for the past 50 years.

Rep. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, said bridges are included in the funding for roadwork and the money is spent on an as-needed basis. She is on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The legislation is debating the transportation budget for 2014-2015, including Gov. Synder’s request for $1.3 billion and a proposal that would generate $450 million annually has been proposed.

“Every study has shown we need at least $2 billion more annually for our overall transportation system, which includes our bridges,” Binoniemi said.

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