By David A. Lieb
JEFFERSON CITY – Dignitaries cut a red, white and blue ribbon with giant scissors. Fireworks exploded. And a crowd gathered to watch a parade of historic vehicles.
The recent celebration marked the completion of a new bridge at the Lake of the Ozarks, replacing a 77-year-old structure with rusting steel that was nearly as old as the lake itself.
Missouri has significantly reduced its number of “structurally deficient” bridges in recent years. Yet an Associated Press review of federal records shows that Missouri still has a number of bridges that are both rated in poor condition and lack structural redundancies that help guard against collapse.
Motorists should be aware that “we have a funding problem,” said Dennis Heckman, the state bridge engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation, “but they should not be afraid to drive across the bridge.”
The “structurally deficient” designation means a bridge needs repairs or replacement because at least one major component has advanced deterioration or other problems that have led inspectors to deem its condition as “poor” or worse. If an inspector believes any bridge is in danger of failing, it’s immediately closed, Heckman said.
According to a 2006 Federal Highway Administration report, Missouri had 4,595 bridges categorized as structurally deficient – about 19 percent of its total. That figure declined to 3,495 out of a total of 24,334 bridges statewide in the most recent data available in federal records.
The decline came as Missouri embarked on a multi-year project – completed in November 2012 – to repair or replace 802 of the state’s worst bridges.
Federal figures show Missouri had 687 bridges that were both structurally deficient and “fracture critical,” meaning they are designed in a way that risks collapse if a single, vital component fails. But Missouri is improving. Figures submitted by MoDOT to the federal government earlier this year – but not yet included in the publicly available federal database – show a net reduction of 47 bridges on the list of those that are both structurally deficient and fracture critical.
Among the bridges coming off the list thanks to recent improvements are sections of Interstate 64 near Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis that carry an average of more than 40,000 vehicles per day. Although it was still on this year’s list, the Missouri Highway 5 bridge over the Lake of the Ozarks near Hurricane Deck won’t be in the future. The new $32 million bridge opened for traffic Sept. 9 and is designed with structural redundancies so that it is not considered fracture critical.
The old bridge “is really rough – the guardrails are rusted clear through and they’re hanging up by bailing wire,” said Kent Morris, the owner of a motel located near the bridge. “It was just time. It needed to be done.”
The list of Missouri’s structurally deficient and fracture critical bridges ranges from rural crossings with average daily traffic counts of five vehicles to urban structures such as an Interstate 270 bridge over the Mississippi River that carries nearly 60,000 vehicles daily in St. Louis.
Heckman said the U.S. 54 bridge over the Mississippi River at Louisiana, Mo., is the next highest priority major bridge in line for replacement. But the state must come up with its half of the roughly $100 million cost to be split with Illinois, he said.
A proposal that would have asked Missouri voters to impose a 1-cent sales tax for transportation projects failed to pass the Legislature this year. It’s unclear whether supporters will make another run at it next year.
Some bridges listed as both structurally deficient and fracture critical may never be replaced. Among those is the U.S. 60 bridge over the Mississippi River near Cairo, Ill, which is not far from a newer Interstate 57 bridge.
“We’re basically just nursing it along to help the local farmers,” Heckman said. “When it’s no longer safe or costs too much to keep up, we’ll close it permanently.”