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Friday, 31 July 2015 11:47

Can local bridges span funding gap?

Written by  Dennis Hines
This bridge over Green Lake in the town of LaGrange is among those in need of replacement, according to a state ranking of municipal bridges. About 18 percent of the bridges in the county need to be replaced or substantially repaired, but funding such projects is tough for local governments and the state funding process often takes years. This bridge over Green Lake in the town of LaGrange is among those in need of replacement, according to a state ranking of municipal bridges. About 18 percent of the bridges in the county need to be replaced or substantially repaired, but funding such projects is tough for local governments and the state funding process often takes years. Terry Mayer

(See list of the worst bridges at bottom)

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Kevin Brunner is worried that local bridge maintenance keeps getting pushed further and further down the road.

As the county’s public works head, Brunner is acutely aware of the more than a dozen bridges in the county that are labeled as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete by the state Department of Transportation.

“These are primarily rural bridges,” Brunner said, adding that many are owned by towns. “We’re pushing 18 or 19 percent of our bridges that need to be replaced or substantially repaired.”

The cost to repair a bridge is about $1 million, he said.

“With revenue limitations that local governments have, I just don’t know how we’re going to get this done,” Brunner said. “It’s getting to a critical state, I believe.

“Having a sound, up-to-date bridge system is essential for local commerce. So whether it be farmers that use these bridges or people commuting to work, we have to have an up-to-date infrastructure and it concerns me that we’re not keeping up.”

Bridges are inspected every two years and given a sufficiency rating. Bridges that receive a rating of 50 or below are determined to be structurally deficient.

“Each bridge is inspected by a certified bridge inspector, then a report is produced in which bridges are rated,” Brunner said. “There’s an analysis done and at the end of the process, the information is submitted to the state and then a sufficiency rating is established for the bridge.”

Bridges that receive a structurally deficient rating are eligible to receive funding from the Wisconsin Local Bridge Program. However, Brunner said only two bridges in Walworth County may be eligible to receive funding this year. He said even if a bridge becomes eligible for funding, work might not begin until 2019 because of state regulations.

“Let’s say we have one or two bridges that are selected every two years, it’s going to be many years under the bridge program (until) these bridges can be replaced,” Brunner said. “By that time, a lot of the other bridges are going to be in that category where they’re structurally deficient or functionally obsolete and will need to be repaired or replaced, so it’s a real big issue.

“Even under the state program, it’s an 80/20 program. The state pays 80 percent and local governments pay 20 percent. So if the cost is $1 million, that’s $200,000.”

The county is considering options to fund bridge repairs so it does not have to rely on the state program, Brunner said.

“If you keep relying on state funding, it’s very competitive and it takes a long time to get those projects done,” he said. “We seriously looked at how we can best fund these county bridge projects without having to resort to state funding. That’s a big issue we have to discuss with the county board public works committee.”

Bridge closed indefinitely

Residents in the town of Sharon know firsthand what it’s like to live with a structurally unsafe bridge.

A 1930s bridge over Peters Road between U.S. Highway 14 and Wisconsin Highway 67 has been closed for about a year because of its poor condition.

“It’s an old timber bridge that’s over the Wisconsin Southern Railroad,” Brunner said. “The railroad company doesn’t care about it because it doesn’t affect its handling of freight. It’s owned by the state but maintained by the railroad and they have really let it go, because they really believe it’s not worth investing a lot of money into it.

“Some of the timbers are starting to rot. Some of the footings are starting to crack. … Timber abutments are not in good shape. It’s in very bad condition.”

Rich Brandl, chairman of the Sharon Town Board, said the town plans to apply for funding through the state program by the end of August to have the bridge repaired. But even if the town receives funding, it could be years before work begins, Brandl said.

“If we get access to the grant money, the earliest we would be able to do work is 2019 or 2020,” Brandl said. “So the bridge will be closed for a while.”

Last year, several residents expressed concern that closing the bridge would affect emergency vehicle access to neighborhoods near the bridge. However, Brandl said that has not been an issue.

“The Sharon Fire Department has an agreement with the Darien Fire Department that whoever gets there first, gets there first,” Brandl said. “Darien is to the north, so the Darien Fire Department usually gets there first anyway. If they need to use an emergency rescue vehicle, it may take a few extra minutes. Other than that, it has not been a big interference.”

A detour route is set up around the bridge.

“It’s about a 12-mile detour for residents who live on the main road,” he said. “They’ve gotten used to the detour for now, but hopefully it won’t be closed forever.”

Another bridge located south of Peters Road had to be repaired last year. That project cost about $25,000.

“With the railroad bridge being closed, we didn’t want to close another one,” Brandl said. “Ryan Construction in Janesville replaced the wooden structures with steel structures, and we were told that it’s good to go. The bridge will need to be fixed again in the future. We were told it’s a temporary fix, but the steel has a 10-year life span.”

Municipalities seek funding

Some area municipalities have taken other routes to funding local bridge repairs.

The village of Fontana received a $1.5 million loan last year from the Wisconsin DOT to help pay the cost to repair and reconstruct a bridge on South Lake Shore Drive. The bridge was repaired last year and reconstruction is expected to begin in October. The new bridge should be completed in May.

“Hopefully, it will be done in the middle of May. It’s contracted to be done by May 27, the Friday before Memorial Day,” said Dennis Martin, village administrator. “It’s dependent on the weather. A large portion of the bridge is concrete and it may need to be cured. By Memorial Day next year, we should have a ribbon cutting for a new bridge.”

“(The loan) will be paid back through property taxes, but the loan doesn’t have to be paid back for 20 years.”

In the town of Linn, town officials had the Hillside Road bridge repaired last year for $157,000.

“We did not apply for any grants,” said James Weiss, town chairman. “We funded that all by ourselves.”

Weiss said the bridge was in poor condition.

“It was an old railroad bridge,” Weiss said. “It had eroded wooden supports on the side. Over the years, the railroad opted not to maintain it. We redid the bridge and put in new guard rails on the side.”

Bridges are assigned a sufficiency rating by the state. A rating of 50 or below is considered structurally deficient. These are the 10 bridges in Walworth County with the lowest ratings (as of last summer):

Lauderdale Drive over Green Lake, town of La Grange: 17.9

Hospital Road over Ore Creek, town of Lyons: 24.3

Sheridan Springs Road over White River, town of Lyons: 30

Borg Road over Swan Creek, town of Delavan: 33

Hillside Road over railroad tracks, town of Linn: 35.9*

South Shore Drive over Geneva Lake tributary, Fontana: 37.9*

Dam Road over Turtle Creek, town of Delavan: 40.1

Peters Road over Turtle Creek, town of Sharon: 40.6

Mill Street over White River, town of Lyons: 41.3

Lackey Lane over Geneva Lake tributary, town of Linn: 42

* repairs made; bridge rating subject to change

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