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Trouble bridges: Aging infrastructure, increased truck traffic degrade crossings

A piece of farm equipment with an overloaded grain cart broke through a bridge located north of Richardton last week, the tractor crashing through and rendering the crossing impassable, said Stark County Road Superintendent Al Heiser.

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An aging wooden bridge sits over a creek in northern Hettinger County. Like it, many southwest North Dakota bridges are showing signs of age and will soon need to be repaired or replaced. (Submitted Photo)

A piece of farm equipment with an overloaded grain cart broke through a bridge located north of Richardton last week, the tractor crashing through and rendering the crossing impassable, said Stark County Road Superintendent Al Heiser.
He said the incident was an anomaly because the piece of farm equipment was “extremely overloaded,” well past the 8-ton state guideline.
However, a combination of heavier farm equipment, an increase in truck traffic as a result of the oil industry and aging bridge infrastructure is testing bridge capacity throughout the southwest part of the state.
Todd Miller, Stark County’s road operation specialist, said the county maintains 161 bridges that are funded through a combination of federal, state and county dollars, depending on the road and how much it is used.
Heiser said there is no set lifespan for a bridge, due to varying levels of usage, but that many of the county’s bridges are “really getting outdated.”
The county plans to replace a total of four bridges in 2016, three south of Richardton and one north of Dickinson on 112th Avenue Southwest, a number well above the county average of rebuilding one every two or three years.
In addition to aging infrastructure, Dunn County Road Superintendent Mike Zimmerman said an increase in truck traffic and heavy farm equipment is shortening the life of bridges in the county.
“Every overloaded truck that goes across them does a little bit of damage and eventually they break down to nothing, or somebody falls through,” Zimmerman said.
He said, often, drivers who don’t know the area will take the most direct route - even if that means traveling on a narrow road with bridge restrictions. He said in these instances there is no way for an oversized truck to turn around, so vehicles continue on, carrying overloaded cargo across the small bridges.
Zimmerman said he is working in conjunction with North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties to come up with a precise mapping system that would point out all of the bridges in the area so drivers are aware of sizes and load limits before they drive along a corridor.
While this may help alleviate some of the traffic and load limits on bridges, Zimmerman said it will likely not remedy the situation entirely. He said there will always be a percentage that will take the shortest route, regardless of precautionary warnings.
In addition, there are many bridges that are “off system,” meaning they are not located on a main road or under 20 feet in length and therefore do not qualify for federal funding.
“All of these old little crossings where cattle pass and wooden structures for creek crossing, none of them qualify, so we replace them with culverts and stuff as we go,” Zimmerman said.
He said the county assumes those costs, which often become a financial burden ranging from $500,000 to $1 million, a price tag difficult to assume at the county level.
Zimmerman said there is a bridge in Manning where an individual is unable to farm a tract of the land he rents because the bridge cannot hold enough weight and isn’t wide enough for machinery to cross. He said the estimate on that project falls around $1.4 million for a structure that is seldomly used.
Miller said Stark County runs into similar issues where federal and state funds don’t cover the cost of repairs due to light vehicle traffic.
“We have structures in some places that are only used by one resident and it’s tough to justify spending $1 million on a project like that,” Miller said. “But what do you do in those kind of cases?”
He said the county is responsible for all crossings and therefore cannot leave any to deteriorate, no matter how infrequently the road is traveled.
Officials from both Stark and Dunn counties said they have proactive programs in place to keep up with aging and overloaded bridge infrastructure before it becomes a problem, though both said the task isn’t easy as the infrastructure, which was largely put in place in the ’50s and ’60s and continues to age.
“We have a lot of bridges that could be replaced, it’s all dependent on getting those funds though,” Miller said.

Related Topics: STARK COUNTYDUNN COUNTY
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