Minnesota bridges falling down?

Under bridge
This bridge on County Highway 32 is showing signs of wear at its base and its girders.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

The Root River winds through Filmore County's hills and bluffs. It's a popular destination for anglers and canoers. And the county back roads are easy enough to tool around, with 465 bridges.

But County Engineer John Grindeland is worried about many of them. He says he's not sure a golf cart could cross some of them safely. Twelve are rickety, one-laners over 100 years old. As he drives over one of them Grindeland says most have been in desperate need of repair for decades.

"We just call this the Old Barn Bridge because the old barn resort is here," he says. "But this bridge here is in pretty sad shape. If you stand on the bridge while someone's driving over it you can feel the whole structure just move."

Filmore County Engineer John Grindeland at his office in Preston.
MPR Photo

Replacing a bridge like this is complicated and expensive. A new bridge would have to be longer. Meaning he'd have to realign the road. To do that he'd have to get major construction equipment down a narrow, dirt road, which would cost additional money. The final bill would be about a million dollars.

A new bridge can cost anywhere from $100,000 to several million dollars depending on the size and type. A box culvert, essentially a cement or steel box over a creek, is the least costly.

Grindeland says he likely won't replace the Old Barn Bridge. It only sees a few cars a day.

But the next bridge he drives to provides a quick exit to the county road leading to Lanesboro for a few families and businesses. Posted weight is six tons. It couldn't carry a school bus.

Without the bridge, there is another route to Lanesboro. But it's a one lane dirt road twists blindly up a cliff.

Replacing the bridge may bring Grindeland more problems. He says a new bridge would encourage people to use the old road. He can't afford to fix both, and there's his quandry.

The Old Barn Bridge in Filmore County is 100 years old. It was built with Model T Fords in mind, not Ford Expeditions.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

"You could potentially spend in excess of two million dollars to basically service two or three families," he says. "You gotta kinda wonder is it worth it to spend a million dollars to service two or three families if they've got another way out?"

County engineers largely decide what's worth replacing. Filmore County has more bridges than most. But it's a problem across the state.

Bridge construction costs have increased by 30 percent in five years according to MnDOT. Construction and maintenance costs as a whole have also gone up. Grindeland says no county, no matter the size, has a budget to upgrade all of its bridges to minimum federal standards.

"As long as there isn't sufficient funds out there, and I'm talking a minimum of four bridges a year to me is probably $1.5 million. Four bridges a year for the next 40 years and I won't even get rid of the ones that are deficient right now."

"As long as there isn't sufficient funds out there, and I'm talking a minimum of four bridges a year to me is probably $1.5 million. Four bridges a year for the next 40 years and I won't even get rid of the ones that are deficient right now," he says.

Bridge funds come from a mix of local, county, state and federal money. That's in addition to bridge bonding money, which just pays for construction of the actual bridge.

Patti Simmons is the State Aid Program Engineer with MnDOT. MnDOT distributes bridge bonding money to counties based on the governor's recommendations and projects already approved.

Last session the bridge bonding bill contained $40 million, and close to half of that went to the Sauk Rapids Bridge.

"Within about a two month period I had all that $40 million spent on projects," she explains. "So now we've created a list, we call it a waiting list of projects where the plans are complete, they're ready to go, they're just waiting for the legislature to pass this bill."

Currently, that list has $90 million worth of bridge projects. This year the governor's recommending $30 million in bonding, that's less than in 2004. The Senate has recommended $50 million and the House has included $60 million in its bonding package.

East of Filmore is Houston County along the Mississippi, where Tracey Von Bargen is in charge of 174 bridges.

He stands under one he'll replace this year. It's part of County State Highway 32, a banged-up road that runs along a gravel pit. The bridge is barely 40 feet long.

Tacey Von Bargen is the county engineer in Houston County. He says an increase in the gas tax is critical to keeping up with bridge and road repair.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

"If you look, kinda look, underneath [it's] worse," he points out. "Or if you look along the edge that gives a pretty good indication of the status of the bridge now. And it's not just people walking over it. It's trucks, heavy trucks."

Replacing this bridge and the approach will cost $350,000. Part of it will be funded through a federal program. VonBargen says the federal money can be a hassle to get, but he says state funding is so low he has no alternative.

He says MnDOT tracks funding levels through two sets of figures. One is the amount a county receives to maintain its roads and bridges. The second is how much it would actually cost to bring the county's entire transit system up to today's standard. They then look at those dollar amounts as a ratio.

"And the ratio has been adjusted for inflation and the cost of business and so on," he explains. "Well, that number is now tied for last place in the last 39 years."

That was 1967.

Cross a bridge
Trucks like this are what get most people around the back roads of Filmore County, but some come close to pushing the weight restriction on an old bridge like this one.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Von Bargen says additional bridge bonding money is important. But it's a loan. His department's income comes largely from the gas tax.

"I mean gas tax has never been indexed, it's still 20 cents a gallon. It's been that way since 1988. So in 18 years it's never changed. Well, a lot of other things change in 18 years. More people drive, so you get more gas tax, but in the end you need to do more as well," he says.

More roads, heavier agricultural trucks and personal vehicles mean more damage to the road. So more money is spent repairing roads and less replacing bridges.

Lietutenant Governor and Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau says the state is behind in repairing bridges. But she says the gas tax is not the answer because gas prices are already too high.

"So I don't think it's the time," she adds. "I also think we're going to have to have more than one resource and once we do the gas tax people will think the problem will be solved. It won't be. So I think we have to look at other methods first."

She says those methods include construction projects that are state and local partnerships. And she wants to see a constitutional amendment to completely dedicate the motor vehicle sales tax to transportation funding. County engineers want all of that and more.

Molnau adds that many bridges built post-World War II may not need to be bridges. Instead, they could be replaced by cheaper box culverts.

That could start other fights. Culverts can interfere with fish migration and recreational boating.

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