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State of bridges is topic of concern

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news Worthington, 56187

Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

WORTHINGTON -- In 24 years of working road construction, Glen Woodis of Shieldsville said he had never had a machine "leave the job" until October 19, 2010, when the milling machine he was driving went through the deck of the bridge on Nobles 1, south of Brewster.

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Woodis was able to jump to safety, receiving bruised bones in his bid to do so.

The milling machine hung halfway through the bridge for awhile, eventually ending up top-side down in Elk Creek.

"I was milling against the guardrail, and the machine stopped," Woodis said. "I backed up six inches and started to go forward, then heard the timbers crack and felt it go."

Normally, a man would have been standing on the railing guiding him, Woodis said, but that day, the other construction worker had bought new boots and didn't feel comfortable standing on the rail, so instead was behind the machine.

"It could have been a lot worse," Woodis said.

Woodis joined Nobles County Public Works Director Stephen Schnieder, Minnesota Farmers Union President Tim Henning and Transportation for America Field Organizer Andrea Kiepe Tuesday morning to discuss the state of bridges in Minnesota and South Dakota.

According to information from Kiepe, 8 percent of Minnesota bridges are structurally deficient, and South Dakota has the fifth worst bridge status in the United States.

"Pipestone County is one of the top five worst in the state," she said, adding that 22 percent of that county's bridges are structurally deficient.

Slightly more than 13 percent of Rock County bridges are deficient, a report by Transportation for America states, as are 12 percent of Jackson County bridges, 8 percent of Cottonwood County bridges, 6 percent of Murray County bridges and 2.7 percent of Nobles County bridges.

"Congress created the Federal Highway Bridge Program (FHBP) to fix and replace deficient bridges throughout the county, yet current funding is insufficient to keep up with the rapid deterioration rate of U.S. bridges," the report states. "While appropriations have increased by $650 million, bridge needs over the same time period have increased by $22.8 billion."

"They'll be arguing a six-year bill in Congress in the next month of two," Kiepe stated. "We want to really call attention to this issue. It's a really big federal issue that boils down to people's lives."

According to Schnieder, there are 350 bridges in Nobles County, and while the county has made a commitment to improve the roads to a 10-ton system, many of the bridges have been posted for lower weights because of the structural integrity. This causes trucks driving grains to farm or market to make detours, going several miles out of their way.

Or, given the number of citations being handed out for trucks crossing bridges and exceeding weight limits, drivers are just ignoring the posts and traveling across the bridges.

Henning said the posted bridges cause access to markets or to products to be limited.

"There's a safety issue, and when a bridge closes, there's a cost to members to get around the bridge," he said. "And in an emergency situation, everything costs more (to repair)."

"There are emergency cost overruns, and more work to do because the condition of the bridge has degraded," Kiepe added.

The bridge that Woodis was milling was not rated structurally deficient, causing Kiepe to wonder what kind of risks people are taking as they cross old bridges.

In a struggling economy, putting people to work repairing bridges would be a "shot in the arm," Kiepe stated. Because she lived just a few blocks from where the Interstate 35 bridge collapsed in 2007, she walked past the wreckage from that devastating incident on a regular basis for a year.

"I don't think another bridge should have to fall and more people should die before we do something about this," she said.

Many of the bridges in the area are 50 years old or more and were not built to hold the large semis and straight trucks traveling over them today, Schnieder said. Loads and their weight have increased over time.

Add the extra weight to a bridge already 50 years old, and there are bound to be problems, he indicated.

"We have one bridge west of Brewster that is posted," he stated. "Technically, a full school bus shouldn't cross it."

The state is also a source of funding for bridges, but that money comes and goes with the approval of the legislature, Schnieder said. When federal funding for a bridge is needed, the money needs to be applied for up to five years in advance.

"So the bridge is already in tough shape, then we need to wait another five years for the funding," Schnieder stated.

"We need to try to get that four to five years down to six to eight months," Henning said, "speed up the red tape."

Because townships can not afford the costs associated with replacing or repairing bridges, federal funding is needed, Henning stated. Otherwise, farmers can't get crops from field to farm and from farm to market.

"That's why our forefathers built bridges," he said. "We have to build them again."

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