Local bridge replacements to see delaysWORTHINGTON — With nine bridges posted for weight limitations, and a 10th bridge posted for a width restriction, Nobles County is in dire need of funding to replace them. To do all 10 projects will cost about $4 million, but talk in the state legislature of not introducing a bonding bill this session means some projects will have to be put on hold.
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — With nine bridges posted for weight limitations, and a 10th bridge posted for a width restriction, Nobles County is in dire need of funding to replace them. To do all 10 projects will cost about $4 million, but talk in the state legislature of not introducing a bonding bill this session means some projects will have to be put on hold.
That is not good news for Nobles County Public Works Director Stephen Schnieder, who now must prioritize which bridges can be replaced when the construction season begins in a few months. At the top of the list is replacement of the bridge on County State Aid Highway 1 (CSAH 1) south of Brewster, which is limited to one lane due to a catastrophic failure and partial bridge collapse last October.
Following close behind in priority is a bridge west of Brewster on CSAH 14, which has been posted down to a 10-ton limit because the wooden timbers bracing the bridge are rotting. Other bridges slated for replacement include one south of Lismore on CSAH 14, two on CSAH 19 (one south of Leota and one north of Ellsworth), two on CSAH 3 (one north and one south of CSAH 14), two on CSAH 6 (one spanning the Little Rock River and one spanning Norwegian Creek) and one on Nobles County 60, south of Wilmont.
“We’re actually getting close to the point that you can’t get there from here with a loaded truck,” Schnieder said. “There’s more and more restrictions where you can’t get down a road, and some of these detours are going to become fairly significant.”
On the eastern side of the county, near Brewster, the effects of bridge restrictions will wreak the most havoc on the agriculture industry. Minnesota Soybean Processors, the New Vision fertilizer plant and a large elevator system are all located at Brewster.
Nobles County has secured $150,000 in state funding to cover half of the cost to replace the CSAH 1 bridge. Schnieder said the funding was left over from last year’s bonding bill when counties, benefitting from the down economy, received lower bids from companies looking for construction work.
As for the bridge west of Brewster on CSAH 14, without a bonding bill to cover half the cost of replacement, Schnieder said the county’s cost will be $300,000 to $350,000. The money would come from its annual construction allotment for state aid highways — money typically used to maintain the county state aid highway system.
“The county board has … made a commitment to replace the bridge on CSAH 14,” he said. “We’ll just have less money to use on the roads. That is a key transportation system for us, and we can’t leave that bridge sit there waiting for bonding money from the legislature.
“You can have a 10-mile section of roadway and everything is perfect and ready to go for the trucks,” he added. “All you got to do is have one (restricted) bridge on there and that 10-mile investment is pretty much worthless.”
In Minnesota, the legislature typically does not consider a bonding bill each year, instead alternating between a budget year and a bonding year. This is a budget year for the state House and Senate — a year in which legislators are tasked with solving a $6 billion budget deficit.
“We must have an agreeable and workable (budget) solution before approving any additional borrowing,” said Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, via telephone Friday morning.
Still, Hamilton continues to support investment in the state’s infrastructure, including roads and bridges. In 2008, he was among a group of Republicans that helped override a veto by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty — a move that resulted in funding for, among other projects, the Minnesota 60 four-lane expansion in southwest Minnesota.
Hamilton said the legislature has not received feedback on the impact a new bonding bill — in light of the budget situation — could have on the state’s bond rating.
“In my opinion, it’s a little premature to be talking about a bonding bill before we have a workable, agreeable solution on the overall budget,” he said. “It doesn’t take away anything from the need to continue to improve our infrastructure. I hope people understand where I’m coming from. Let’s get our finances together and understand the implications of our actions and then move on.”
Schnieder said the Minnesota County Engineers Association is discussing broaching the state for a bonding bill specifically aimed at replacing timber bridges. In the past, he said the state put aside special bonding money for replacement of truss bridges, which were subject to catastrophic failure. Now, with the timber bridges showing their age through rotten beams and deterioration, replacing them is becoming urgent.
“Since we have a large number of these bridges and we’re finding that they are becoming a problem — creating a bottleneck in our transportation system — we should identify these as a special case that should be addressed outside of the normal bridge replacement bonding program,” Schnieder said.
Both Hamilton and Sen. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, said the idea of a special bonding bill to address timber bridges is an option they’d like to hear more about.
Magnus, who joined the bonding committee this year, said he specifically chose the committee because of the need for more funding for bridges.
“I knew they were having problems with bridges and getting them funded,” Magnus said via telephone Friday afternoon. “If we do (a bonding bill), I’m going to push as hard as I can for funding for local bridges.”
Magnus said the bridge system lost out on funding when the 2008 transportation bill was approved.
“That bill was a bad bill,” he said. “Funding was lacking (for bridges), and it also created all these transit systems that did not provide adequate long-term funding to maintain and operate (them).”
Now, both transit and bridges are fighting over the same pot of money.
Back in Nobles County, it’s the bridges that are suffering.
“From my perspective, this would be a good time to do as many (bridge) projects as possible,” said Schnieder. “We’re getting a lot better price, and as the economy changes, those prices will change in the future.”
From a bonding perspective, interest rates continue to be quite low, which leads to more investment from the money the state could bond for. And, with the continued higher unemployment rate, a bonding bill would be good for business, too.
“This is a good way for us to get something done that should be done … and keep people working,” Schnieder said.
The 10 bridges categorized for restrictions in Nobles County in late 2010 may have company later this year, after consulting engineers working for the state return this summer for another round of bridge inspections.
“We may find another group of bridges that will be added to our list of posted or deficient structures with restrictions on weight,” Schnieder said. “Our numbers could grow by 100 percent from what we have right now.”
With a “fairly large backlog” of restricted bridges, Schnieder said the problem is only going to get larger. And, if people ignore the restricted weight limits on existing bridges causing further deterioration, the county will have to close them to all traffic.
“It may come to a point that we need to close these roads to everybody in order to protect the public because those heavy trucks won’t stay off these bridges,” Schnieder said. “We ask the people to obey the postings so that we can keep a bridge open for as long as we can for those who can use it.”