Vital Rural Bridges

July 5, 2022

It’s big, beautiful and a bit wild.

Rural America spans 3,557.6 miles. From Maine to California, even in Alaska and Hawaii, rural towns and counties are connected by more than 617,000 bridges.

Of these bridges, 42% are at least 50 years old, and more than 46,154 (7.5%), are considered structurally deficient, meaning they are in “poor” condition, according to the National Bridge Inventory report published by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA).

Now comes billions of dollars of federal infrastructure spending that is intended to “save the day.” The recently announced Bridge Replacement, Rehabilitation, Preservation, Protection, and Construction Program, made possible by the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), will provide $26.5 billion for bridges over five years. A total of $5.3 billion will be available during 2022.

State, county, and municipal public works directors should run, not walk, to secure some of these funds for the must-do projects in their areas. In my work with rural states, such as South Dakota, where I live, it’s my experience that a more proactive approach is needed to secure these funds, especially for smaller bridges, which are often overlooked.

Small Bridges Matter to America

When Americans picture bridges, we can’t help but think about big, bold engineering marvels such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Royal Gorge Bridge, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, or the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway.

However, the “bread and butter” bridges are the tens of thousands of small bridges, many 200 feet or less, such as the Heart River Bridge in Dickinson, North Dakota, or the Pigtail Bridges in the Black Hills, South Dakota, or F-13-S-Minor (mile post 211) along I-70 in Summit County, Colorado. While these bridges may not make postcards, they are what allow people, cars, trucks and rail cars to move easily from one place to the next. They connect our farms to market roads, bolster tourism and the economy, and aid in the transportation of materials. Put all these bridges together and you have a vast network that allows Americans and the goods we need to flow from one place to another.

Many of us who live in big cities often don’t see these small bridges or realize their value to those who live in rural America, much less to ourselves. Bridges not only allow food, fuel, and other products that are critical to our day-to-day lives to travel, but they also connect people.

Finding Funding

It’s not hard to see why many of these small bridges are often overlooked for funding. Sturdily built decades ago, many have withstood the test of time with minimal maintenance. As our nation has grown in population, and as the number of vehicles that cross these bridges has increased exponentially, it’s become clear that without more funding, the number of bridges rated as “poor” will only increase.

While the IIJA will provide much needed funds for states to spend on bridge repair, maintenance, and replacement, it’s only a drop in the bucket of what’s really needed. According to ARTBA, more than $160 billion may be the more realistic cost to repair America’s bridges, based on average cost data published by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

When federal funding is delivered to the states, the competition for it will be heavy, and still may not be enough for the work that needs to be done – requiring additional state funding. The challenge will be to determine whose priorities will rise to the top of the list to take advantage of those federal and state funds while they’re still available. For example, there may be an important project that needs to be completed but still requires several steps before it can be approved. On the other hand, there may be several lower priority projects that are shovel-ready. Who gets the money? If the intent is to create jobs, it’s most likely will be the shovel-ready projects.

Additional funding creates other complexities

All states will get money for bridges-—that means neighboring states, too. So, if you’re a public works director in South Dakota, you not only will be competing with other cities and towns in your state, but also be with neighboring states in your region, all of which will be vying for bridge contractors to complete their work. If the IIJA funds need to be spent by a certain date, this will put even more pressure on states to find contractors to complete their work. In South Dakota, for example, we only have six local bridge contractors and the bridge contractors in other nearby states would likely be unavailable as they focus on projects closer to home.

With all this competition for bridge contractors, it’s likely your state, as well as local counties, will need to become more creative and flexible to get attention in a low-bid environment. States or counties may need to bundle several bridges together into one project to attract bids from regional bridge contractors who may also be submitting bids for projects in other states.

Another challenge facing bridge contractors is finding enough qualified workers to do the work – a problem that existed before the current labor shortages. With a shortage of trained construction workers, some construction firms may face limits in how much work they can perform and consequently may place a higher priority on larger projects or projects that allow their workers to travel less. This is another factor that adds urgency for rural counties and municipalities in getting their projects shovel-ready as quickly as possible.

Secure Your Funding

To prepare for additional infrastructure funds, municipal, county, and state officials might want to consider taking the following actions now:

  • Invest in Inspections and Studies: Federal infrastructure funds will be allocated over a five-year period; now is the time for states, counties, and municipalities to invest in bridge inspections and conduct various studies to determine their bridge repair, maintenance, and replacement needs. With this research, you can then create the documentation you need to make your case for infrastructure funds.
  • Build a Priority List and Consider Alternatives: Because state and federal funding may come with spending deadlines, line up your projects and get them shovel-ready. Keep in mind that sometimes funds will appear unexpectedly. Having a transportation plan with associated cost estimates will help the process immensely. Additionally, it will aid in knowing if there are structures in neighboring counties that could be constructed at the same time to entice contractors to mobilize to the region.
  • Take Advantage of Low-Hanging Fruit: Don’t overlook opportunities to check some projects off the list. For example, for one client, we took advantage of South Dakota’s bridge removal program. If you’ve identified a bridge that’s not needed anymore, use the funding to remove it, which will in turn save your county and state ongoing maintenance and inspection costs.
  • Keep it Simple: With the potential for more funding, place your priority on functionality over design aesthetics. Knowing the strain this will put on local bridge contractors, design, and engineer bridges that are economical, efficient, and get the job done. As federal funding pours into other states, it may be difficult to secure bridge contractors, so now is the time to focus on simplicity and functionality.
  • Design for climate change: More states are experiencing flooding. Within the past few years, we’ve seen more storms that are more intense. As you estimate repair, maintenance, and replacement costs, it’s imperative to factor in resilience into the costs of weather-related damage.
  • Anticipate rising material costs and labor shortages: The number of construction workers nationwide is anticipated to decline in the coming years as Baby Boomers and Gen Xers retire. Meanwhile, infrastructure spending on roads, water treatment plants, power plants and renewable energy projects will accelerate the demand for building materials. Therefore, it’s critical to make sure you’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s to avoid construction delays, which could affect the costs of materials and labor.
  • Consider stockpiling materials: While some argue that supply chain problems will ease by 2023, it’s not clear how quickly that will happen, or if there will be more issues in the future. As bridge funding turns into actual spending on thousands of bridges across all 50 states, we may run into a rush for materials, specifically steel. It may not be a bad idea to secure storage facilities to stockpile materials for projects that are likely to get approved. Along these lines, pay close attention to funding requirements to use materials manufactured in the United States. R&B

Vanessa Victor, P.E., is a lead engineer with Ulteig, an engineering/design, program management, technical services and field services firm that operates throughout North America and offers integrated solutions across the Lifeline Sectors® of power, renewables, transportation and water.

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