PI County seeks funding to fix bridges

ROGERS CITY – One of Presque Isle County’s 26 bridges is now closed due to its badly deteriorated condition, county road commission Superintendent Gerald Smigelski said.

But what about the rest of the county bridges?

While the 2013 report from federally mandated bridge inspections show some of the county’s bridges are in better shape than others, Smigelski said these inspections combined with the department’s maintenance efforts are keeping the public safe. The county can’t perform as much preventative maintenance as it likes, but without more funding there’s not much more his department can do.

Funding “is a problem, and the majority of legislators realize it and it’s being talked about,” he said. “They just don’t know how to fix it without raising taxes.”

The inspection files are available to the public at the road commission office in Rogers City, Smigelski said. They’re also reported to the state, and each bridge also has a federal structure ID number.

One example of a bridge in need of repair is an 18-foot span across Quinn Creek on Quinn Creek Highway rated in fair condition, with some areas scoring worse than others. The railings rated poorly in three inspections, the bearings are in poor condition and there’s greater than 10 percent section loss – steel that’s rusting through – on the stringer beams. Under recommendations, inspector Charles Kendziorski suggested scheduling the bridge for replacement and replacing or repairing the railings. It was built in 1925, and reconstructed in 1987.

However, its short span complicates matters, Smigelski said. It’s two feet shy of meeting the minimum definition for a bridge. It doesn’t meet the requirements for the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Local Bridge Fund money so the county is completely responsible for the cost of its replacement.

A 1992 estimate put the total cost at $155,000, well below what it would cost today; Mark Straley, Presque Isle County Road Commission part-time engineer, gave a rough estimate of $400,000.

There is one possible solution, at least for the small bridge over the Little Trout River, Smigelski said. He’s considering a type of bridge construction that involves building horizontal layers of a cloth-like material called geotextile and about a foot of granular material. These would be built on either bank, capped at the face with cement blocks and topped with a cement pad for bridge bearings. Beams, either cement, wood or steel, for the actual span would sit on the bearings. By keeping construction “in-house,” the cost could be considerably lower.

“The road commission can build it all itself, we just have to buy the beams,” he said, adding the solution could possibly work for the Quinn Creek Highway bridge as well.

Straley said he believes this kind of bridge could cost around $150,000 to build, although it’s only a rough estimate at this point.

While the road commission would struggle to fund larger bridge projects out of its own general fund, it has been successful in securing $1.5 million to replace a deteriorating bridge, according to Smigelski. It’s on County Road 489 over the Rainy River, near Black Lake. Construction is set to begin in 2015.

This fund is in higher demand due to increased need, Smigelski said. Donohue said that out of the more than 10,900 bridges in the state, about 60 percent of them are under local government control. Of these, 16 percent are structurally deficient.

Deteriorating bridges aren’t unique to Presque Isle County. Overall, about one in eight bridges in Michigan is considered to be structurally deficient, County Road Association of Michigan Director Denise Donohue said. They’re part of what the association believes to be a $2- to $3-billion backlog in road and bridge repairs across the state.

Presque Isle County has 26 bridges and larger culverts under its jurisdiction, Smigelski said. Large culverts, where there may be two or more of the corrugated structures allowing a stream to pass beneath a road, are counted as bridges if the combined width and gap between the culverts equals or exceeds 20 feet. Each one is inspected by an engineer with R. S. Scott every 24 months, and is rated from 1 to 9 on 21 different areas. A rating of 9 indicates new, and one is critical.

The newest bridge in the county was built in 2012, according to inspection files. That’s the bridge over the Black River on 638 Highway in Allis Township. The oldest is over the Ocqueoc River on Ocqueoc Falls Highway, built in 1920. Despite its age and visible deterioration, nothing on the bridge ranked worse than a five, or fair, for the 2013 inspection.

Straley said the ratings are calibrated so that even a bridge in poor condition isn’t on the verge of collapse. As a bridge deteriorates, engineers will use a complicated process to calculate the load it can safely hold. As of 2013, three bridges in the county had lower weight ratings. One is now closed and another is set to be replaced.

The Schubert Highway bridge over Monaghan Creek, the third with a lower rating, has a seven-ton-per-axle weight limit. It’s three culverts with a total length of 21 feet, dating from 1960, according to the inspection report. Photographs in the report show the steel at the water line and below is starting to rust.

“At this point I’m not considering that urgent, but it’s showing the signs that it’s on the downhill slide,” Straley said. “It’s coming, it might be three or four years, it might be 10 years, but we’re watching that and we know that we’re going to have a problem out there.”

If a bridge reaches a certain point of deterioration, it’s inspected more often, Straley said. None of the county’s bridges are currently in a state requiring more frequent inspections.

Overall, Straley said he believes the county-maintained bridges are in good shape, and as long as the load limits are obeyed on the few bridges that have them, there should be no reason t worry.

“These bridges are inspected by engineers, and when they begin to lose their strength, we put load restrictions on them,” he said.

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at www.thealpenanews.com.