By BECKY GILLETTE
It is difficult to imagine anything more integral to economic development and quality of life, particularly in a largely rural state like Mississippi, than good roads and bridges. But the fact is that, as with many other states, revenues for highway and bridge maintenance are lagging far behind what is needed to ensure a good highway infrastructure. Each year the state is getting further behind.
The cost to repair all deficient bridges in Mississippi is estimated at $2.5 billion and will continue to rise as the system deteriorates, said Mississippi Department of Transportation Director Melinda McGrath.
“MDOT spends $60 million annually on bridge replacement projects under the current program,” McGrath said. “In recent years, construction costs have risen over 300 percent and present a significant hurdle for funding bridge replacement projects.
“As infrastructure needs increase over time, the state and federal revenues remain at a flat rate fuel tax. The current needs of the state’s deteriorating infrastructure have outpaced the funding to improve it.”
McGrath said without an increased investment in transportation, MDOT must continue to direct the majority of existing funds to maintenance and addressing safety priorities while delaying projects that would add capacity to the infrastructure network and stimulate the economy.
“The state needs a bridge program to address the deteriorating inventory of bridges at a greater pace than what is possible through the normal MDOT program,” McGrath said. “With additional funding, MDOT can respond quickly and work proficiently to repair these important lifelines that connect communities and increase accessibility across rural routes in Mississippi.”
Significant progress was made this year on this issue. During the 2015 legislative session, the Mississippi Legislature approved House Bill 1630, also known as the “Gaming Bill.” This bill authorizes state revenue bonds to provide $200 million for the repair, rehabilitation, replacement, construction and reconstruction of bridges that are on MDOT’s deficient bridge list and other transportation related projects.
“MDOT will continue to work with the Mississippi Legislature and Congressional representatives and senators as well as U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration to continue to show the need for long-term transportation funding and a funded bridge replacement program for Mississippi,” McGrath said.
“Bridges connect communities and increase accessibility across rural routes. Downgrading posted weight limits on deficient bridges could force local businesses, first responders and school buses to seek alternate routes, and slow down the delivery of goods and people. Repairing and replacing bridges generates economic development and improves access to safe and reliable routes for disconnected communities.”
MDOT has a comprehensive inspection and maintenance program for maintaining 5,760 bridges across the state. McGrath said this program allows tracking to maintain capacity of bridges on or over state maintained highways in order to prioritize repair and replacement.
“By having a comprehensive inspection program, MDOT is able to determine whether a bridge is safe for the traveling public,” McGrath said.
One bright spot, McGrath said, is that MDOT has one of the lowest costs per square foot of bridge deck of any other state in the nation.
MDOT Bridge Division Director Justin Walker said most bridges are inspected every 24 months. Bridges posted for load restrictions are inspected every 12 months.
“The National Bridge Inspection Standards require all bridges open to the public undergo routine inspections,” Walker said.
“MDOT inspects all state-maintained bridges. The Office of State Aid Road Construction oversees the inspection program for all non-state maintained bridges. Per the National Bridge Inspection Standards, MDOT is charged with annually reporting bridge inspection data to the Federal Highway Administration for all state and locally maintained bridges.”
Walker said even though inspections are routine, each bridge presents its own unique challenges with regard to the inspection. These factors include the age of the bridge, the location of the bridge and the environment surroundings of the bridge.
“Each bridge inspection results in assigning a sufficiency rating to the bridge which ranges from zero to 100 with 100 being new condition,” Walker said.
“Bridges are deemed structurally deficient when they require significant maintenance and repair to remain in service and eventual rehabilitation or replacement to address deficiencies. To remain in service, structurally deficient bridges are often posted with weight limits to restrict the gross weight of vehicles using the bridges to less than the maximum weight typically allowed by statute. The bridges that are “deficient” are not unsafe. If a bridge is considered unsafe it will be closed.”
Bridges are deemed functionally obsolete when a bridge has a design not suitable for its current use (e.g. lack of safety shoulders). MDOT lists 922 deficient bridges (structurally deficient, functionally obsolete and posted) of the 5,760 bridges maintained by MDOT.
There are 190 bridges in Mississippi with posted weight limits.