Possible cuts in federal program could slow replacement of Cape County bridges

Friday, June 10, 2011
This steel stringer bridge with wooden deck over Caney Fork on County Road 422 northwest of Daisy is under contract for replacement. (Fred Lynch)

There are a lot of bridges in Cape Girardeau County, and more than a few are long past their prime.

Of Cape Girardeau County's 173 bridges longer than 20 feet, 20 percent are deemed to have major deficiencies, according to federal figures.

The county has prioritized repair and replacement and, with the help of a federal grant program, it has been able to meet the most immediate, if not basic, bridge needs, according to county commissioners.

But the Off-System Bridge Support Program could face deep cuts or greater competitive restrictions in Federal Highway Transportation Bill up for reauthorization.

"Many counties wouldn't be able to maintain bridges without this help," Presiding Commissioner Clint Tracy said.

Cape Girardeau County included.

Commissioner Paul Koeper, who oversees the county's highway department, said the county receives on average $210,000 a year under the bridge program, which pumped out about $7 billion to states in fiscal year 2010, according to the Government Accountability Office. Another $3.2 billion was targeted for bridge work through federal stimulus funds -- about 60 percent reimbursed to local and state governments.

This year, the county plans to replace two bridges -- the recent commission-approved $312,000 Caney Fork Bridge project on County Road 422 and one on County Road 233 on the southern end of the county near Whitewater. Generally, counties are required to match 25 percent of the project cost.

Without the federal funding, Koeper said, the county may be able to replace a bridge every four years.

A massive lobbying campaign, supported by the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Development Officials, among others, on Wednesday wrapped up a letter campaign to congressional leaders. Cape Girardeau County signed off on the form letter urging its congressional delegation to support the Off-System Bridge Program.

The effect of the loss of bridge funding, local governments contend, would be dramatic.

"County roads and bridges are an essential part of the lifestyle of the citizens of Cape Girardeau County," the letter says, noting the farmers, the schools and the emergency agencies, among others, that depend on the unencumbered travel the bridges afford.

"Our citizens who live in the out county pay the same fuel tax as everyone and deserve safe bridges," the letter says.

Highway and bridge funding comes from taxes collected at the county level, sent to the state, the federal government, back to the state and then eventually back to the county. Oftentimes, the tax money that goes out is not the same amount that comes back -- for many local entities, the distribution is smaller. The funding comes from licensing fees and sales tax on new cars, Proposition 1 sales tax proceeds and the state fuel tax. Koeper said Cape Girardeau County roads and bridge receive about $1.4 million from the distribution of Prop 1 money, and another $900,000 per year from the state licenses, and sales tax on fuel and registration.

Troubled bridges

It was late afternoon, Aug. 1, 2007, when the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River, killing 13 and injuring dozens of others. The collapse sparked a call for improving the nation's aging infrastructure.

But nearly four years later, it appears there's a long way to go in improving America's 600,000-plus bridges, the vast majority of which are owned by state and local governments. The federal government owns less than 2 percent of the nation's bridges, according to congressional testimony in July by Phillip Herr, director of the GAO's Physical Infrastructure Team.

A government analysis shows there has been some improvement in bridge sufficiency ratings. Herr said that between 1998 and 2009 the number of deficient bridges declined by 14 percent, including structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges.

"The reduction in the number of structurally deficient bridges may reflect state efforts to address deterioration or damage," Herr said in his testimony.

In an interview with the Southeast Missourian, Herr said the verbiage can make bridge conditions sound worse than they are. Koeper agreed.

"We don't feel like we have any bridges that are unsafe, that are going to fall in and kill somebody," Koeper said. "If we did, we wouldn't have them open."

Still, the bridges on the priority replacement list are there for a reason, Koeper said.

Herr said he can't answer whether America's bridges are safer today.

As of 2009, there remained 159,739 bridges rated as deficient.

Funding fight

These are tough days for government programs looking to hold onto their budgets. The mood in much of Congress is to cut spending.

But county officials in rural Missouri argue the Off-System Bridge Program is a cost-effective way to make a big difference in economies and communities. Many understand, however, that a lot of people are making the same arguments for their projects.

Lawmakers "are going to pass a highway bill, there's no question about that," said Dick Burke, executive director Missouri Association of Counties. "It's just a matter of if the off-bridge system is going to survive in its current form or another form. There will be something, but it may not be as attractive as it is now."

Missouri's counties are responsible for 73,349 miles of road, and 13,874 bridges over 20 feet long, according to the association of counties.

The overarching problem is the way the Highway Trust Fund is funded. It is projected to take in $36.9 billion this year. But for a revenue system dependent on fuel sales, escalating gas prices, more efficient vehicles and declining fuels sales promises to continue to take a bigger annual bite out of the money marked for America's highway network.

"Whenever car sales went down, we took a hit," Koeper said of the revenue for the county's highway budget, which dropped by about $150,000 a couple of years ago. Revenue has bounced back, with a county highway budget of about $2.7 million.

Burke said the lobbying campaign is more critical than ever.

"We know we have an uphill battle. Spending in Congress is a huge issue," he said. "We're hoping our Missouri delegation gets on board with this."



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