If your trip through York, Chester and Lancaster counties involves crossing over a bridge, there’s a good chance you might need to take a detour.
Multiple bridges in the three-county area have been closed for replacement in recent months. A state-maintained bridge in Rock Hill closed for more than a week over the Christmas holidays after heavy rains lead to a washout. Six times in the past three years, emergency crews closed a portion of the Catawba River bridge on Interstate 77 to repair holes that opened in the concrete.
Such closures may become more frequent in the future. The Herald obtained and analyzed national data collected each year by the Federal Highway Administration and found more than 170 bridges in York, Chester and Lancaster counties classified as either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete” – ratings that should make them priorities for replacement.
The bridges include some of the most heavily traveled stretches of roadway in the region, nine of them either on or spanning I-77. Others are in remote areas that may see only a few cars a day.
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All will sooner or later need to be replaced.
All but five of the bridges listed by the FHA are maintained by the S.C. Department of Transportation, which has plans to replace all of them at some point. But how soon will depend on the availability of federal and state funding and the comparable rankings of other deficient bridges across the state.
Ranking the state’s causeways and overpasses is a yearslong process, and despite their designations, final replacement of the area’s busted bridges could be years away.
Delays in replacing deficient or obsolete bridges has resulted in extremely hazardous – and sometimes fatal – consequences for motorists in other states. The most notable is the downtown Minneapolis bridge collapse on Aug. 1, 2007, that killed 13 people and injured 145. Design flaws that went undetected during safety inspections were blamed for the accident that sent 111 vehicles 108 feet into the river below.
When “deficient” isn’t deficient
Each year, DOT maintenance engineers across the state assess bridges based on prescribed “criteria points,” those aspects of the structure’s condition, location and traffic levels that make up its “sufficiency.”
“When you look at the sufficiency rating, you have to look at the overall health of a bridge and what’s changing around it,” such as an increasing number of cars or new growth in the surrounding area, said Perry Crocker, assistant maintenance engineer for the DOT district that covers York, Chester and Lancaster counties.
All of the bridges in the federal data have been ranked for potential replacement, Crocker said, but despite their designation, not all will be treated with the same sense of urgency. Some might be scored as “structurally deficient” if they lack appropriate painting, while others are still in good enough condition “they’re years out (from being replaced), because they’re not deteriorating fast,” Crocker said.
In the past two years, seven bridges in the three-county area have been replaced, and another nine are scheduled to undergo replacement or rehab work between 2016 and 2019, according to planning charts from the Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP).
164 bridges in York, Chester and Lancaster counties as either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete.”
In the three counties, 20 federal aid-eligible bridges and nine nonfederal bridges have replacement work underway or are in the design and planning stages, out of hundreds programmed for replacement.
In total, 36 DOT-maintained bridges in York County are rated “structurally deficient” and 29 “obsolete,” based on inspections between 2012 and 2014. Another 35 in Lancaster County are deficient and 30 “obsolete,” and in Chester County, 24 and four bridges respectively hold the same ratings.
But despite those numbers, it make take years for all those bridges to be selected by state DOT officials for replacement, and even longer for a new span to be erected. Even some bridges that rank high on the list for potential replacements may not get immediate attention.
“Some rural bridges might rank high, but they’re the only connection in the area for emergency response vehicles,” Crocker said.
The six-year plan
Each year, Crocker’s office and the other six DOT engineering districts submit their bridge assessments to the state DOT commission for compiling the final list, based on inspections that take place as regularly as every two years to every six months, depending on their assessed condition.
Lee Floyd, the state bridge maintenance engineer, says state officials consider input from the district engineers, plus local emergency routes, school traffic, economic development and their own analysis. “Then they rank them from highest to lowest,” Floyd said.
Then, DOT will program a schedule for replacement based on the cost. Deputy intermodal planning secretary Ron Patton said DOT keeps a consistent $125 million set aside specifically for bridge replacement, out of a total $765 million highway funding plan for fiscal year 2016. About 80 percent of that funding comes in the form of federal aid.
The department has kept to that target even after the $105 billion federal transportation program MAP-21, signed into law in 2012, included no dedicated bridge funding.
$125m set aside for bridge replacement in the FY 2016 S.C. highway funding plan.
“Before that there was a slice of funding for ‘bridge funds,’” Patton said. “With no bridge program, you can almost program (bridges) at a higher rate. ... We want to be able to reduce the number of ranked bridges each year.”
Federal transportation funding comes in two-year increments. Once the funding is in place, a project has to go through a long permitting, design and contracting phase, and the actual replacement process itself can take several months. The average project takes two to three years to complete, and the state’s current STIP, starting in 2014, runs six years out.
Even after the statewide rankings are done, other factors could speed up or slow down a project’s completion.
“Some bridges might cost $1 million to replace and some might cost $40 million,” Patton said.
If the bridge is open, no.”
Perry Crocker, DOT maintenance engineer, on whether drivers should worry about bridge safety.
“If you get to number 12, and it requires more environmental permitting than number 14, then number 14 might go to programming,” Floyd said.
After a delay, the most recent federal transportation plan, the FAST Act, was signed into law by President Obama last month. Patton said DOT is waiting to see if the act might increase the available funding for bridge repairs.
So in the meantime, should drivers be concerned about their safety when they head over bridges that might be ranked deficient?
“If the bridge is open, no,” Crocker said. “The comforting thing is ... these bridges are consistently inspected, and our team of guys here is the most experienced in the state.”