County transportation officials say funding remains the biggest obstacle to maintaining North Dakota’s bridges 10 years after a busy Minneapolis bridge plunged into the Mississippi River.
Tuesday, Aug. 1, will mark a decade since the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, which killed 13 people and prompted debate over the state of the nation’s infrastructure.
Fifteen percent of the 4,400 bridges in North Dakota are “structurally deficient,” which is seventh-highest in the country, according to a February report from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. Minnesota has the 35th highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges.
“Structurally deficient,” doesn’t necessarily mean the bridge is unsafe, transportation officials said. But the nearly 56,000 American bridges in that category show “state and local transportation departments haven’t been provided the resources to keep pace with the nation’s bridge needs,” ARTBA Chief Economist Alison Premo Black said earlier this year.
A Federal Highway Administration spokesman said they now use a three-tier standard instead of the structurally deficient measure. Under that terminology, more than 11 percent of North Dakota’s bridges are in “poor” condition, while almost 53 percent are in “good” condition and the remaining 36 percent are in “fair” condition.
Grand Forks County Engineer Nick West said the Minneapolis bridge collapse “brought the whole problem to the forefront.” Working as a transportation consultant at the time, he said the tragedy prompted more attention to bridge inspections.
But funding remains a challenge, West said.
“Our funding has been very stagnant, and of course construction costs have risen,” he said. “So we’re doing less and less than what we were doing 10, 20 years ago.”
West said they rely largely on local property taxes and state gas tax revenues to fund bridge projects. They got a “one-time shot in the arm” with the recent boom in state revenues -- the county doubled or tripled its normal bridge budget last year thanks to state oil money -- but state budgets have since been squeezed.
“We’ve had bridges with ton limits for decades. And it seems like you fix one and another one comes on the list,” West said. “One way or another, if you want these things fixed, we need money.”
President Donald Trump has pitched an ambitious infrastructure program, but the New York Times reported this week that those efforts have stalled behind other priorities, such as the federal budget and immigration.
But state officials are confident in the condition of North Dakota’s bridges. Every public bridge in the state is inspected at least every two years, said Jon Ketterling, the bridge engineer at the North Dakota Department of Transportation.
Of the 1,135 bridges on the state highway system, only 23 are structurally deficient, down from 32 in 2007, Ketterling said. That means the vast majority of the deficient bridges are on the urban and county systems, and most county bridges are on “low-volume roads,” DOT spokeswoman Jamie Olson said.
Ketterling said he considers the state’s bridges to be in “good shape” but many are starting to age.
“As those migrate from 50 to 60 to 70 years old, there will be a fair amount more need there,” he said. While Ketterling doesn’t see immediate funding challenges, “that could change in the next 10 years.”
Incoming North Dakota DOT Director Tom Sorel was tapped to lead the Minnesota DOT just months after the I-35W bridge collapse. In an interview this week, he said bridge safety will be a priority in his new job.
“Having gone through the bridge collapse, I’m pretty sensitive to that,” Sorel said. “I want to get a better handle on it and see where things stand and what we need to do.”
The North Dakota DOT has spent about $200 million on bridge construction and rehabilitation on the state system over the past decade. About 100 county bridges have been built with federal funding over the past 10 years, and about 10 county bridges have been built with state money in that time, Olson said.
“We’re fortunate to have a fairly good budget yet, so we’re able to do quite a bit of replacement each year,” said Frank Podoll, project engineer at the Cass County Highway Department. “The next couple of years could be a little tighter.”