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State survey finds one in 13 bridges structurally deficient


A survey found the Hi-Line one of the better locations in the state for having bridges in good repair, with no deficient bridges listed in Liberty or Chouteau counties, one in Hill County and the largest problem area in Blaine County, where 18 of 166 bridges were found deficient.

Statewide, one of every 13 highway bridges in Montana is structurally deficient, and that an average of 80,000 motorists a day cross what the report, prepared by Transportation for America, ranks as the top three busiest bridges in the state that are in that category.

Tom Fairbank, road and bridge supervisor for Blaine County, said work is ongoing to improve the bridges in that county. Blaine County has done much of that work using the Treasure State Endowment Plan, along with work paid through the county budget and work by the state Department of Transportation.

He said the TSEP funding has really helped Blaine County.

"It's a really good program, " Fairbank said.

The report released this week by Transportation for America said federal guidelines peg a bridge structurally deficient if it has a major defect that requires significant maintenance or replacement.

"Drivers in Montana are regularly traveling across heavily trafficked bridges with 'poor' ratings — bridges that could become dangerous or closed without repair," the report said.

In Hill County, only one of the 48 bridges were deemed structurally deficient. The 20-year-old bridge over Beaver Creek carries about 100 cars per day.

Several bridges in the Chinook and Harlem areas were not up to standards, the report said.

Fairbank said the county has replaced about eight bridges in the last eight or nine years, with three more planned for replacement this summer.

Using TSEP, the county is able to contract out larger projects with work done by county employees using county equipment, such as dirt work on the projects, used for matching fund requirements.

The state handles most of the bridges across the Milk River, including the Merrill Bridge about four miles west of Harlem, replaced last summer, and the Finley Bridge east of Chinook now in the planning stages.

Statewide, the busiest bridges with problems are one over the Missouri River in Great Falls that has an average of 37,280 vehicles a day, the Russell Street Bridge in Missoula with 22,370 vehicles, and the Madison Street Bridge, also in Missoula, with 21,560 vehicles.

"We're not concerned that these bridges are going to fall down, but the fact that there's no consistent stream of funding for that sort of infrastructure maintenance should be of concern," Missoula Mayor John Engen told the Missoulian. "We're in the same boat that many other communities are in."

In all, the survey found 391 Montana bridges structurally deficient. That's 7.6 percent of bridges statewide. Nationally, the survey found 11.5 percent of bridges to be structurally deficient.

"The report on bridges, if accurate, highlights one outcome of the federal government's declining stewardship of our transportation infrastructure," said Missoula City Councilman Jason Wiener.

The report said $70.9 billion is needed to pay for bridge repairs nationally. It also said most bridges are designed to last 50 years, and that the average age of bridges in the nation is 42. Montana's bridges average 41.7 years.

Deferring maintenance for 25 years can end up costing three times as much in repairs.

"We've made significant investments in our transportation infrastructure, and we have to figure out appropriate, intelligent ways to continue to fund that," Engen said.

Online: Read the entire report at www.t4america.org.


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