Local News

Maintaining Nebraska bridges an ongoing challenge

By Ally Phillips, Nebraska News Service
LINCOLN–It happens like clockwork.  About every two years the Nebraska Association of County Officials gets requests for media interviews about bridge safety, sparked by a bridge collapse somewhere or when federal funding comes into question.
Larry Dix, executive director of the county officials group, said the current media attention might be related to uncertainty about how much federal money ultimately will be available for bridge work.
Also drawing attention was a recent report by Transportation for America, a coalition of transportation advocates, which calculated that Nebraska has the sixth highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges nationwide.
“We stand out at times because we’ve just got a lot of bridges,” said Mark Traynowicz, state bridge engineer at the Nebraska Department of Roads.
Roads department figures show Nebraska had 15,327 bridges in 2012. Of these, 11,813, or 77 percent, were the responsibility of local public agencies like counties, while the remaining 3,514 are a state responsibility because they are on the federal and state highway systems.
The nation as a whole has about 607,380 bridges, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers 2013 infrastructure report card. Eleven percent the U.S.’s bridges are structurally deficient, meaning that certain important elements of the bridge have problems.  Officials emphasize that a bridge may have deficiencies, but if it is found to be unsafe for any mode of transportation to cross, it would be closed.
“The bridges that are out there are safe,” Traynowicz said. “People see these words like structurally deficient and . . . they start thinking ‘Oh my gosh. I don’t want to cross these bridges.’ . . . People are safe on any bridge.”
Of the 3,514 Nebraska state bridges, 261 are structurally deficient, which is about 7.4 percent, which means 92.6 percent of the bridges are structurally sound and adequate. The ultimate goal is 95 percent. Since 2003, Nebraska’s percentage of structurally sound and adequate bridges has exceeded the national percentage, which ranged from 77 to 80 percent over the past 10 years.
Of the state’s local bridges, 8,240, or 69.8 percent, are classified as structurally sound. Nationwide, the percent of structurally sound local bridges has ranged from 70 to 75 percent in the past 10 years.The Nebraska goal is to have local bridges exceed the national average.
Many of the local bridges are small ones. According to Traynowicz, if the rankings were based on square footage, Nebraska would be ranked between number 30 and 40.
“Even though we’d like to be better and even though we’d like to have more money to fix the bridges that we have, I think we’re kind of in line with where we probably should be,” Traynowicz said.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ bridge report, most of Nebraska’s structurally deficient bridges are small water crossings in the southeast corner of the state.
Dix said this is because of the state’s terrain. Western Nebraska has more sandy, flat lands than the eastern part of the state.
“It may not be that the creek is any wider but the banks are much steeper,” Dix said. “The slope of the earth (in Western Nebraska) is so minimal that they can put up concrete culverts that do the same thing as a bridge does.”
Daniel Linzell, University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s civil engineering department chairman, said that Nebraska’s local bridges being worse off than the state bridges happens other places, too. Linzell has spent time researching bridges and has lived in various states where he has seen bridge infrastructure first hand.
“That’s not unique to Nebraska,” Linzell said. “I know there is a struggle with that here in Nebraska and that’s a struggle with that elsewhere as well.”
Contact Ally Phillips at nns.aphillips@gmail.com

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