KDOT unveils program to help cities, counties replace their deficient bridges

6/25/2014

By Ken Stephens

By Ken Stephens

Special to The Telegram

(MCT) — Kansas Secretary of Transportation Mike King came to Hutchinson Tuesday to announce a one-time, $10 million program to help counties and cities replace short, low-traffic bridges that were deemed deficient in their most recent inspection.

King said bridge replacement is a budget challenge for county commissioners across the state, especially when it would appear that the traffic doesn't justify the expense. However, he and Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chad Bontrager said that those small, low-traffic bridges remain vital for farmers trying to get equipment into their fields and their crops to market.

"It's important to make it safer for farmers and rural residents to get to their fields and their homes," King said.

The one-time infusion of $10 million won't be enough to fix all deficient bridges, King said. Out of just under 20,000 bridges statewide, about 3,200 are deficient. Of those, 1,901 qualify for the new program by also being city- or county-owned, 20 to 50 feet in length and carrying fewer than 100 vehicles a day.

Cities and counties can apply for up to $120,000 per bridge, but must also pay 10 percent of the total cost with local money.

King estimated that replacing the targeted bridges might cost an average of $100,000 each, including engineering work. At that rate, the program would replace about 100 bridges.

"There are more bridges out there than there is money, but this will help a great deal," King said.

Jewell and Phillips counties each have 80 qualifying bridges, the most in the state. Harper and Smith counties have 71, and Marshall County has 70.

In Reno County, which has 35 qualifying bridges, Public Works Director David McComb said the county will prioritize the bridges, wait for additional information on the application process and then decide how many bridges and which bridges to seek funding for. The county also will need to take the required 10 percent matching money into consideration when it develops the 2015 budget this summer.

Among other nearby counties, Rice County has eight qualifying bridges, Harvey County has 26, Kingman County has 19 and Pratt County has four.

King said KDOT wants to distribute the money to cities and counties quickly. The deadline for applications will be in mid-September, and bridges will be selected for funding about Oct. 1. The goal is for construction to begin in 2015, he said.

"This is going to be great for rural parts of Kansas," Bontrager said. "Agriculture will be an important benefactor from this program."

Statewide, agriculture contributes about $39 billion, or 28 percent, of the state economy, he said. In Reno County, agriculture is about 53 percent of the economy, or $1.2 billion.

Bontrager said four major segments of the agriculture economy all rely on rural roads and bridges: the milk industry, animal processing, grain production and storage and farm machinery manufacturing.

Kimberly Skillman-Robrahn, a Coffey County commissioner and president of the Kansas Association of Counties, said the trend in agriculture is toward larger farms, heavier equipment and larger yields, which stresses county roads.

"Bridges are part of the problem," she said. "Counties are not replacing them at a sustainable rate. It's not because they don't want to. It's because they can't afford to."

Many of the qualifying bridges already have weight limits that prevent heavier modern farm equipment from using them, King said.

Closing those low-traffic bridges, Skillman-Robrahn said, would be a "false economy" because the long-term cost of long detours would exceed the cost of replacing the bridges.

King said there would be a geographic component to selecting bridges that get funding under the new program, although 13 counties, mainly in the southwest part of the state, don't have any qualifying bridges.

"We will look at all parts of the state, but I think it will be more central, eastern and northern (Kansas) just because of the number of bridges," King said.

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