Politics & Government

Kansas has sixth-highest number of ‘deficient’ bridges in U.S.

A view of under the Harry Street bridge that goes over the Arkansas River. (Feb. 23, 2016)
A view of under the Harry Street bridge that goes over the Arkansas River. (Feb. 23, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

Kansas has about 2,300 bridges considered “structurally deficient” by federal standards, according to a recent report.

That’s the sixth most in the United States in an analysis of federal data conducted by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, an industry advocacy group.

“Kansas and some of the states that rank at the top of the list in terms of just the sheer number of structurally deficient bridges have a huge inventory,” said Alison Black, the association’s chief economist who conducted the study.

Structurally deficient bridges have at least one key structural element rated as in “poor” or worse condition. A bridge’s roadway, structure or foundation can be at fault for a structurally deficient rating.

“That indicates there is a need for that bridge to be repaired,” Black said.

Those bridges account for about 9 percent of all 25,047 bridges in the Sunflower State, the 20th highest rate in the country.

“When you look at the percentage of bridges that are deficient, Kansas falls a little bit more toward the middle of the pack,” Black said.

Almost 1,800 bridges in the state are considered “functionally obsolete,” meaning the bridges don’t meet modern design standards.

The state’s bridge funds decreased this fiscal year. But state officials say that’s unrelated to recent sweeps from KDOT in the state budget.

Most structurally deficient bridges are rural roads maintained by local governments, according to the data. And many county governments are struggling to keep up with their infrastructure because of losses in oil and gas revenue.

“I think counties are losing the battle, by and large, of replacing their aged bridges,” Kansas Association of Counties executive director Randall Allen said.

Deficient bridges in Wichita

Here are Sedgwick County bridges with more than 10,000 crossings a day that are “structurally deficient”:

▪ I-235 north, southbound bridges over the Little Arkansas River

▪ I-235 southbound bridge over the Big Ditch before 25th Street exit

▪ 21st Street bridge over a drain tributary just west of I-35

▪ Harry Street Bridge over the Arkansas River

▪ Douglas Avenue Bridge near Linden Drive between Rock Road and Webb Road

All are either under construction or scheduled for renovations.

Wichita city engineer Gary Janzen notes a “structurally deficient” rating is caused by several factors.

“Just because a bridge is structurally deficient doesn’t mean that it’s in peril,” Janzen said. “It doesn’t mean that we’ve got to shut the bridge down.”

KDOT bridges

The Kansas Department of Transportation plans to replace several bridges on I-235 that were constructed in the early 1960s. Bids for replacing the two bridges over the Little Arkansas River are set for April 2017.

“They’re all wearing out and we’re slowly going to be replacing them,” said Tom Hein, a KDOT public affairs chief based in Wichita.

Hein added that KDOT hopes to start work on the I-235 bridge above the Big Ditch later this spring.

KDOT’s Steve Swartz said long-term projects, like the I-235 upgrades, are unaffected by recent transfers from the state highway funds to the general fund.

“Any projects that had already been announced, before any these transfers, are going to happen,” Swartz said.

The department’s spending on priority bridges went from $77 million last fiscal year to $63 million this fiscal year, according to KDOT data.

Funding for more routine bridge repair and rehabilitation work went from $28 million last fiscal year to $12 million this fiscal year.

Local bridges

Bridges on arterial streets listed in the report fall under the city of Wichita’s responsibility.

Janzen said the Harry Street Bridge has corroding expansion joints, which allow the bridge to be more flexible to handle different seasons and different loads.

“We don’t design them like that anymore,” Janzen said. “The old expansion joints basically fail as the material in them, the old rubber material, just gets old and weathered and allows moisture through and ice and salt and everything else.”

He said that the bridges at 21st Street and at Douglas are currently under construction.

Janzen said the city’s bridge system is overall “in really good shape.”

About 72 percent of structurally deficient bridges in Kansas are local rural bridges.

Allen said many county governments in rural Kansas have long dealt with aging infrastructure, even before the recent downtown of oil and gas revenue.

“There’s no subject that commands any more attention of county commissioners than roads and bridges,” he said. “I think that’s probably the number one source of phone calls to commissioners.”

Report ‘a snapshot’

The report’s data includes some bridges that have recently been renovated, such as the South Broadway bridge over the railroad tracks near 34th Street.

“We have almost 280 bridges in our system within the city and it was by far the worst,” Janzen said.

Black said the report was based off a “a snapshot in time” since it relies on bridge inspection data collected by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Most bridges are inspected every two years, she said.

“There could be work underway to repair the bridge. Perhaps that work may have even been completed,” Black said. “But if the bridge inspection hasn’t happened by the time all the data is collected by the DOT for a given year, then it wouldn’t be in there. The bridge may still be listed as structurally deficient.”

Black said the number of structurally deficient bridges nationwide is declining at a slow pace.

“It takes some time to really make a big dent in the problem,” Black said.

But she said state and local governments need to continue investing in upgrading aged and worn-down bridges.

“There is a need for investment. Now whether that’s today or tomorrow or down the line, it’s only going to get more expensive the longer you put it off.”

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar