CLAREMONT— A bridge in Dodge County has become the latest victim in the Legislature's failure to pass a transportation funding package.
A bridge on Dodge County Road O, otherwise known as 655th Street, was shut down on June 23. Engineers called the timber structure irreparable.
Dodge County Engineer Guy Kohlnhofer said the bridge was built in 1941. It had an expected service life of approximately 60 years and should have been replaced two decades ago.
The bridge's timbers have rotted and are unable to support heavy loads. In 2012, the county posted a 5-ton load limit on the bridge. That's a little more than the weight of a school bus.
But some ignored the posting, and the already deteriorating piers supporting the bridge were crushed and twisted by heavy loads. This caused the structure to be unstable and the support for the deck on the bridge was no longer there, which led to the possibility that the deck would collapse into the river, taking any crossing vehicle with it.
The bridge's closure is indicative of the deterioration of transportation infrastructure across the state, Kohlnhofer said. Many counties struggle to find the funds to make necessary.
"We closed another timber bridge last year for the same reason," Kohlnhofer said. "In both cases, inspectors were under the bridges when trucks drove over. This did not make them feel comfortable."
While the department had funds to replace that particular bridge this year, it meant redirecting money from another bridge that could have been reconstructed. That project is now delayed for another couple years.
Replacement bridge designed
The bridge on 655th Street is closed indefinitely, but the Dodge County Highway Department created plans for a replacement bridge that is designed, approved, and in line for state funding. The project would cost an estimated $350,000.
But no state money is coming.
Kohlnhofer said that while the previous year was deemed the "year for transportation" by state legislators, nothing got done.
Dodge County does not have the money in its budget to fix the bridge. The county receives 12 percent of the local countywide tax levy. That covers about 25 percent of maintenance and construction costs Seventy-five percent of the department's budget comes from state and federal sources.
Unlike Mower County, which is considering a half-cent sales tax to help fund roads, some officials say Dodge County wouldn't be able to sustain such a tax.
"Some counties do really well on half-cent sales tax, but it can be the same as raising their property tax," Kohlnhofer said. "There's no appetite for it anytime in the future."
Dodge County has 326 miles of road. Kohlnhofer said that just to maintain roads in average condition, the county falls short $1.5 million annually. That means that after two years, the county is $3 million behind.
"It continues to add up," he added. "Basically, more and more bridges will be closed for extended periods."
The county also manages 241 bridges, each having an average expected lifespan from 60 to 70 years. At the rate of funding from the last 15 years, Kohlnhofer predicts that these bridges might have to stay in service for around 160 years each, or be closed.
"We continue to repair and patch bridges every year," he said. "We recently added additional supports to a bridge built in 1891. We hope to get another 10 to 15 years out of that bridge."
Kohlnhofer also noted that the county's transportation department has lost about 20 percent of its employees since the 1970s. The department has 19 employees, but, Kohlnhofer said that, idealistically, it would have 25.
"Everybody complains they have the worst road in the county, but there's just not a whole lot of support for transportation," he said. It's getting worse and it's getting worse faster."