St. Croix County bridges holding up
The current federal rating system can make it appear that motorists are in danger as they cross some bridges in St. Croix County.
According to the 2006 National Bridge Inventory, obtained by MSNBC and shared with media outlets nationwide, more than two dozen local bridges are apparently in tough shape.
The list of 286 bridges in the county includes 21 bridges that are "structurally deficient" and seven that are designated "functionally obsolete."
Before anyone panics and changes their driving habits to avoid particular bridges, county officials say local bridges are remarkably safe.
"Wisconsin is a very conservative state," said Jeff Durkee, highway engineer with the St. Croix County Highway Department. "We do a lot of work on our bridges. Our bridges are safe here."
Even though strong words are used to classify the condition of bridges in the state and nation, county Highway Commissioner Tim Ramberg said the rating system is simply a way to prioritize which bridges get fixed sooner.
When the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis last summer, everyone began to ask if the nation's bridges were actually safe for motorists. As far as St. Croix County's bridges are concerned, Ramberg said, the answer is definitely yes.
"None of our bridges are in any state of possible catastrophic failure," Ramberg said.
Ramberg said the recent collapse caused the county to check over its bridge inventory again, to make sure inspections were giving a true picture of bridge status.
Nothing they found was surprising.
"I feel we've had quite an aggressive bridge program over the years," Ramberg said.
Bridges that are tagged as "functionally obsolete" often have little wrong with them. In fact, the bridges may be extremely solid, Durkee explained.
The trouble is the bridges are considered obsolete because they were constructed 50 years ago or more and don't meet current standards.
"It might have to do with the width of the bridge," Durkee said. "It's just too narrow for today's traffic."
Spans deemed "structurally deficient" may have issues that need to be addressed, but the problems can often be fixed with a new asphalt deck or minor repairs to the beams that hold up the deck.
A low rating on a bridge's "substructure" is perhaps the worst thing. Deficiencies in that area deal with footings and the support for the overall bridge.
"The words they use are awfully misleading," Ramberg said. "For most of these bridges, there is nothing significantly wrong. You can just see signs of it starting to fail, but you have time to take care of it."
The county has three licensed bridge inspectors on staff, and all bridges are inspected at least once every two years.
After an inspection, bridges are given a score based on a 100-point scale. Bridges that fall below the score of 80 often are scheduled for an eventual re-decking or minor maintenance project. Bridges that fall below a score of 50 most often face replacement.
But even a bridge with a score below 50 oftentimes can function well with no repairs for several years, Ramberg said.
The cost of such major replacement projects can be steep, but 80 percent of the price tag is usually covered by federal funding. Only a bridge or two a year are slated for replacement.
Two of St. Croix County's worst bridges are slated for replacement this year.
One bridge is on 150th Street in the town of Warren. The bridge, which crosses the Kinnickinnic River, has a bridge deck and super structure that's rated "poor" and a substructure that rated "serious."
Another is along County J crossing the Kinnickinnic River near River Falls. That bridge's deck is rated in fair condition, but its superstructure is rated in poor condition and its substructure is considered in serious condition.
Two other county bridge replacement projects were just recently approved for federal funding. They will likely be replaced in 2009.
One is in the town of Glenwood along West Boundary Road.
The second bridge is along 50th Avenue and crosses the Rush River in the town of Rush River. That bridge deck and superstructure are in decent shape, but its substructure is in serious condition.
The bridge with the worst score on St. Croix County's inventory is for a bridge local officials have no control over. The historic Stillwater bridge's deck is rated as in poor condition, its superstructure is in poor condition and its sub-structure is in fair condition. The eventual replacement of that structure will depend on federal and state agencies.
Among the remaining bridges rated as structurally deficient in the 2006 inventory:
County B bridge over Interstate 94.
County C over the Apple River near J&J's Outpost.
State Hwy. 65 bridge over Interstate 94 near Roberts.
Hwy. 63 bridge over Dry Run Creek north of the County G intersection.
130th Avenue bridge over Dry Run Creek, east of Hwy. 63.
Rustic Road over Beaver Creek near the County W intersection.
County E bridge over Beaver Creek, west of Hwy. 128.
250th Street bridge over the Union Pacific railroad near Hwy. 12.
The Trout Brook Road bridge over the Willow River, 1.1 miles north of County A.
90th Avenue bridge over Carr Creek, 4.4 miles east of Hwy. 63.
Walnut Street bridge over the St. Croix River in Hudson.
300th Street bridge over Blue Creek, 1.3 miles north of the County DD intersection.
County D bridge over Eau Galle River south of County E.
State Hwy. 64 bridge over the Apple River east of the County C intersection (no longer in existence).
County JJ bridge over the Kinnickinnic, south of the County J intersection.
County T bridge over the Kinnickinnic, 1.7 miles south of the County G intersection.
Bridges rated as functionally obsolete include:
County M over the Apple River in Star Prairie.
Knowles Avenue bridge over the Willow River.
Two bridges on Carmichael in Hudson.
Main Street bridge in downtown River Falls over the Kinnickinnic River.
340th Avenue bridge over the Willow River.
When compared to most other states, Wisconsin has a pretty good track record when it comes to bridges. Just 15 percent of the state's bridges are rated "functionally obsolete" or "structurally deficient."
That compares with 25 percent of bridges falling in those categories nationwide. St. Croix County only has 10 percent of its bridges in those lower rankings.
"Wisconsin Department of Transportation is proud of the bridge inspection and repair/replacement efforts we use," said Gary Brunner, operations manager for the DOT's Northwest Region. "Like any program, though, there is always room for improvement."
Brunner admits that inspection and maintenance efforts have ramped up the past few months, and that should make motorists breathe easier when crossing bridges.
"The attention being paid to bridge issues across the nation will serve to make the programs run by all states, even Wisconsin, even better," he said. "We want the public to be comfortable that their state is doing a good job."