More funds needed to repair, replace bridges in Mississippi

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Published: August 20,2007

The collapse of the Minneapolis bridge is a tragedy that has had impacts far beyond Minnesota. Across the country, and Mississippi is no exception, the bridge failure has put a spotlight on an aging highway infrastructure that has too few resources to repair and replace bridges vital to the economy.

This kind of thing could happen anywhere, says Dave Barton, executive director, Mississippi Road Builders Association. Barton says both on a state and national level, not enough is being devoted to infrastructure.

“Our maintenance has fallen terribly behind,” says Barton, a former highway contractor. “Mississippi has a very good bridge department, and I trust they are inspecting on a regular basis. But not enough is being devoted to the infrastructure. The interstate system is over 50 years old, and is not designed to carry the traffic that we are currently having. We hope this will be a wake up call to the legislators and leadership in all the states to consider more money for maintenance and repair of highway infrastructure.”

Barton says it was fortunate not more people were killed when the bridge collapsed in Minneapolis.

“We have a lot of bridges out there over water,” he says. “It would be dreadful if a bridge failed with a lot of cars on it.”

Truck traffic in the next 10 years is expected to increase by another 40%.

Trucks put more strain on bridges. Barton says even though most trucks operate legally, there are so many more of them and larger trucks than were originally envisioned.

In Mississippi, there are approximately 3,000 bridges that have been judged “structurally deficient.” Replacing just one bridge can be very costly. There has been discussion about raising the state and\or federal gasoline taxes to help for better bridges. That isn’t a popular idea with the public in these days of soaring gas prices, but most agree experts believe something needs to be done.

“The gas tax has not been raised in Mississippi since 1987, and has never been adjusted for inflation,” Barton says.

Robert Varner, P.E., executive director Mississippi Concrete Industrial Association, says no one likes to talk about increasing taxes.

“Of course, if our bridges are deficient, we have to do what it takes to get that corrected,” Varner says. “If it is an increase in the gas tax or whatever is required, we have to do it. I know we’re always struggling to get money. But we have to make sure we are taking care of our bridges.”

Varner said keeping the bridges in good shape is vital to the economic health of the country.

Nothing is more important to the economy than the transportation system, agrees Central District Highway Commissioner Dick Hall.

“We are not just building a transportation system,” Hall says. “We are building an economy. You don’t get Nissans and Toyotas and even Joe’s Cleaners if you don’t have a modern, safe transportation system.”

The bridge that collapsed was a design not used in Mississippi. That is reassuring. So is the Mississippi Department of Transportation bridge inspection program.

“We have a rigid system of inspecting bridges in the state and federal highway system,” Hall says. “When we find something wrong, we stop and fix it. That is why you will see our workers on a bridge with barriers set up. That having been said, it is all getting older and our resources are getting fewer. So it is a concern for the future funding of proper maintenance because everything is more expensive and everything is getting more years on it. It takes a lot more money to maintain something that is old than something that is new.”

Sometimes the problems that occur with bridges have nothing to do with the quality of their construction. For example, because of rapid development in Hancock County that resulted in greater stormwater runoff, the I-10 bridge over the Jourdan River starting scouring due to erosion. It cost approximately $60 million to repair the bridge.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 1987 four-lane highway program that built $2 billion worth of bridges and highways in Mississippi. Hall said that, unfortunately, one provision was left out of the landmark 1987 legislation: maintenance.

“The Legislature made provisions to build the highways, but not maintain them,” Hall says. “That has to come out of our regular money. The system is aging enough that we must find, if not a new source of money, a better way of doing it. Up until now we have been able to maintain the bridge inspection program. Down the road somewhere if we don’t have additional funding, I could see where we will get into a problem. But we aren’t there yet.

“Our bridges are safe. We have some very dedicated employees doing that. That is their whole job to go out and inspect bridges. They know what they are looking for. This isn’t a sideline, it is something scheduled every day. We have a much safer systems today than we had 20 years ago.”

There are 12 full-time bridge inspectors in Mississippi. Each bridge is inspected at least once every two years.

“We also have a program where we make the bridges easier to inspect,” says Southern District Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown. “In some cases, we built catwalks and climbing cages, and we also have some cable systems. This insures the safety of our inspectors, and makes it easier for them to do more detailed inspections. In some cases, we bring in outside experts such as on our very large steel structures.”

While he supports additional money coming to bridges, Brown says the current bridges are safe.

“We just need to be vigilant to make sure they remain safe,” he says. “The MDOT looks at and inspects our 5,600 bridges that are on state highways. But the counties through their state aid engineer inspect the bridges on their almost 50,000 miles of roads.

“Those county bridges, they have some problems because of lack of funding.”

The Mississippi Legislature has supported a local system bridge program that has assisted the counties to repair and renovate deficient bridges, says Joel Yelverton, assistant executive director, Mississippi Association of Supervisors.

“We are thankful of the progress we have made, and are continually trying to upgrade, replace and repair bridges as is critically needed,” Yelverton says.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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