Brookings County commissioners have asked for federal help in replacing this century-old span over the Big Sioux. It’s about a mile north of the Volga soybean processing plant, and if it’s removed, it could mean real hardships for area farmers. Misar family photo
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BROOKINGS – America’s infrastructure – its roads and bridges, sewage and water systems – is crumbling.
Citizens have been getting that message for years now: we need to repair and replace on a massive scale, before it’s too late.
The average bridge in the U.S. is 43 years old, and one in four of the nation’s 600,000 bridges is deficient, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Of the more than 3,000 oil and gas production platforms operating in the Gulf, one-third were built in the 1970s or before. One study found that, across the country, a significant water line bursts roughly every two minutes, or 720 times a day.
Protecting that infrastructure is why the City of Brookings is pouring tens of millions of dollars into replacement of sanitary sewer equipment and changing out decades-old water pipes as new road projects open up old streets.
It’s a problem faced by Brookings County, too, and a recent decision by the commissioners to add a 100-year-old bridge to the list for replacement illustrates what local governments are up against.
Just last week, the commissioners adopted a resolution adding Bridge No. 06-118-149 to the list for the federal Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program.
The steel bridge is located on a quiet country road, about a mile north of the Volga soybean plant. It crosses the Big Sioux River on 210th Street, between 465th and 466th avenues.
While it’s unquestionably scenic and looks solid enough, Banner Associates in 2010 found loose bracing under the deck, rough overlay and broken planks.
Once the replacement project is green-lighted, the county will have to pony up a minimum of $80,000 – its 20 percent share of the estimated $405,000 replacement cost.
The 72-foot long, 15 1/2-foot wide span is nearing the end of its useful life, having been built and installed in 1910. And while it was critical in its day for farm-to-market traffic, justifying the nearly half-million dollars in federal and local tax money its replacement will require isn’t an easy call in 2012.
That’s the kind of Hobson’s choice commissioners – and city councilors – face every week: how to stretch limited revenue to not only keep up with growing demands, but to repair or replace all the roads and bridges that have taken us where we are today.
Brookings County Highway Superintendent Dennis Clark says that while hard choices have to be made, the county is in a better position than many of its neighbors.
The tax money derived from nearly 32,000 residents – the fourth-largest county population in the state – is what makes the difference.
“Minnehaha County (the state’s largest) doesn’t have any gravel roads, Clark says.
Brookings County, by contrast, has 394 miles of roads, but 133 miles of those – about a third – are gravel.
Mostly good condition
By and large, Brookings County roads are in good condition, according to the highway chief. And so are the 220 bridges he oversees and maintains.
“We review our bridges every two years,” Clark explains, and those falling below a certain standard – a sufficiency rating of 50 or below – go on a list for replacement, or they’re simply closed to traffic.
The sufficiency rating for the 210th Street bridge has now fallen to 42.9, which is when the Highway Department starts to look at replacing or rehabbing a structure.
It was Clark’s recommendation to the commission that the 210th Street bridge be shut down, and that the road be closed to through traffic.
He said that while the structure has some life left in it, he wanted the commission to review the matter now for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on closure.
That was before Lyle Johnson, Brookings Township supervisor, wrote to say that the township would like the road to remain open and the bridge repaired. In recent years, the township has spent $35,000 of its own money to keep the road crossing it in good repair.
Johnson’s message to the commission – similar to one he and other township board members sent in 2010 – was that the county will have bigger issues if it closes the road and bridge. “There is already talk of closing roads on the south side of Highway 14 due to the reconfiguration of the airport,” he wrote. With additional road closures, “that traffic would get pushed somewhere, and potentially to this street (210th).”
Further, some types of traffic – farm machinery, chiefly – are better traveling on roads other than U.S. Highway 14, and without the bridge and 210th Street, that kind of travel would have to be detoured four or five miles to the north of Volga.
If the bridge is closed, Johnson said, there will be more farm machinery back on Highway 14, “and that becomes a safety issue.”
What about flooding?
Commissioner Don Larson lives in the area and knows the bridge well. The board needs to think about what they’re up against with issues of flooding along the Big Sioux, Larson said.
“If there were catastrophic flooding on any of the major highways in the county, we’d have to reroute emergency personnel four to five miles to find another place to cross the river.”
That would apply in the event of a major crash that closed Highway 14, too. If the highway is closed and that part of 210th has been shut down because of the bridge, cars and trucks would have to be rerouted miles to the north.
The bridge is of major interest to Emil Misar Jr., who has land on all sides of the bridge and lives about an eighth of a mile away. The road and bridge are lifelines to property he’s farmed for 42 years.
Misar appeared at the May 1 commission hearing with his daughters, and Pamela Misar-Hauge spoke on behalf of the family.
“If the bridge is removed, our father will have to drive a four-mile section to get to his pasture land and crop land,” she said.
She pointed out, too, that there once was a bridge on 209th Street a mile north, but it was closed about 20 years ago. The next through-road is about three miles north of that.
“My father said it’s sad to think that our forefathers had enough money to build structures like bridges,” Misar-Hauge commented, “but over a century later, we don’t have the money to keep it up, so we just remove it. Dad’s paid taxes (here) for 42 years.”
She noted that farm traffic uses the road because during harvest it’s safer than the nearby highway, and hunters do as well. “On any given day, you’ll also see families fishing from the bridge.”
Misar-Hauge pointed out that FEMA has just spent $25,000 to repair the flood-damaged road a mile to the west of the bridge, and with the township’s repairs, the road is in the best condition it’s been in for 20 or more years.
“So now we have a beautiful road, and potentially no bridge to drive on it?”
Commissioner Dennis Falken summed up the dilemma the county faces. The bridge is getting to a point where you can’t haul much over it, and the county isn’t going to be able to replace all the bridges that will need to be replaced in the near future, he said.
“But with this bridge’s close proximity to Highway 14, I understand this is the road people will take if they can’t take the highway. The amount of traffic that uses the bridge on an average day doesn’t warrant replacing it, but I see the impact it would have on the farm.
“Because it could be used as an emergency route, we should probably put it on the system to be replaced.”
Falken said he’s concerned that the county will soon have to be looking at a lot of bridges, and many will require individual consideration and public input.
Other commissioners voiced concerns as well. Chairman Deanna Santema wondered about public safety and how quickly the bridge will deteriorate.
“That,” Clark replied, “depends largely on the weather.”
With consensus reached, the commission agreed to put the bridge “on the list” for replacement through the federal Department of Transportation’s cost-sharing program.
And when will the county be able to rebuild the bridge? commissioners asked the highway superintendent.
The earliest they could expect to get a bridge replaced through that program is 2021, Clark replied.
Contact Ken Curley at email@example.com.