If you ask Steve Mika, it was after a 2007 bridge collapse in Minnesota when bridge standards started to change.
For Mika, the highway superintendent for Saunders County, that’s when the journey began. Across the country, authorities were conducting new inspections and tightening up their inspection standards.
Replacing and repairing bridges is no easy task, especially in Saunders County, which, with 430 bridges longer than 20 feet, has more than any other county in the state. And with tougher standards being imposed, many of them needed new attention.
“What once was acceptable, then wasn’t” Mika said. “We had right around 100 of those bridges that we had to close.”
What followed was a decade of work, as Saunders County battled limited resources to repair or replace a flood of closed bridges. When the Fremont Tribune interviewed Steve Mika on the subject in 2010, the county had 45 bridges closed. Now, as another deadly bridge collapse—this time, in Miami—made headlines in March, Saunders County is finally catching up. Mika says that the county has five bridges still closed, with another few on minimum maintenance roads, which are considered low-priority fixes.
The March 15 bridge collapse in Miami, where a pedestrian bridge fell over a highway and left six dead, hasn’t prompted any immediate changes to regulations or inspections, Mika said, and Saunders County doesn’t have any bridges like the one that fell in Miami. But as Saunders County closes in on reopening its bridges, there is still work to be done. Many bridges in the county are considered “structurally deficient”—still open, but operating at a low tonnage and in need of repairs or replacement. The next challenge is to address those.
Saunders County’s highway department has planned 78 projects for the next six years, according to the department’s One and Six Year Plan. A majority are the replacement or repair of structurally deficient bridges. Nearly all of the 43 projects prioritized for this year consist of work on structurally deficient bridges, save for a handful of paving projects, according to public records.
Saunders County has replaced 10 structurally deficient bridges since the beginning of this year.
“We went through it and made a priority list of all those bridges and what we thought could be used to replace or repair them and we’re working right down the line,” Mika said. “The biggest challenge is probably the money side.”
Some of these structurally deficient bridges were were closed at one point over the last decade. In that decade, the county’s priority has been to reopen closed bridges—even if in a limited capacity.
“I’d say some of them that we might have just done some repairs to, just to get them open, are on the structurally deficient list,” Mika said. “They were closed, but at least they’re open now under a limited weight.”
While structurally deficient bridges remain open, they have relatively low weight limits, which are posted by each bridge. Those low weight limits might pose issues for residents, especially in rural communities.
“Some of these bridges that are 6 or 7 tons are basically closed to the farmers anyway because their equipment’s too heavy to get across it,” Mika said. “We’re working to get these opened up as fast as we can, or in a replacement system.”
For Mika, the hardest part of conducting bridge repairs is prioritizing bridges while taking into account limiting factors, like cost and traffic volume. Bridges that have higher traffic levels or that fall on emergency or bus routes will get higher priority. The five bridges still left over from last decade’s federal overhaul have been considered lower priority, Mika said.
“They’re low volume roads and they’re long bridges, and when you only have maybe 20 cars a day compared to another bridge that has maybe 100 or 200 cars a day, it just makes sense to do that one first,” Mika said.
In some cases, bridges might only affect a handful of individuals.
“I really feel for the landowners and farmers and the people living out there that have to go around sections, or on a long detour to get to a town or another property or something like that,” Mika said. “Every road is important to somebody.”
Often, the biggest factor affecting how bridges are prioritized is cost. The 43 projects listed on the one-year plan are estimated to cost more than $7.5 million, with the average project estimated to cost more than $176,000, an analysis of public records shows. There’s a wide range there, with the cheapest project estimate at $15,000 and the most expensive—a paving project—costing $1 million.
Bridge repairs are funded through county dollars, federal assistance and through a new program called the County Bridge Match Program.
The County Bridge Match Program is a state initiative, launched in 2016, that provides counties with funding for “innovative solutions” to repair structurally deficient bridges, according to the program’s website. Mika is part of a working group of highway officials from several counties that helped developed the program.
So far, three bridges in Saunders County have been replaced through the program. One other has been selected and will be replaced this year.
Federal assistance can also help, but brings its own complications, Mika said.
“We have three bridges that are slated for federal aid right now that have started the process like 8 years ago, and we’re not even there yet,” Mika said. “When you have the federal government assisting you, their standards are way higher.”
Mika expects that the five remaining closed bridges will be open in two years—though it will depend on funding. They aren’t necessarily the county’s top priority, Mika said. Because of costs and traffic volumes, other structurally deficient bridges are higher priorities.
“Along with the bridges, I have paved roads I have to keep up too, so it just depends on how much money I get for my new year’s, or next fiscal year’s budget,” Mika said.
Mark Traynowicz, the state bridge engineer, said that the new standards for Nebraska’s bridges came about after Nebraska’s Department of Transportation updated its bridge inspection manual, required that bridge inspectors get certified, inspected all of Nebraska’s 15,000 bridges and determined every bridge’s load rating, all around the time of the Minnesota bridge collapse. But he added that the collapse only played a small role in informing those changes.
“We realized we had some bridges in our inventory, mostly on the county side, that just weren’t safe to stay and keep open,” Traynowicz said.
Traynowicz added that he doubts that the Miami collapse will make significant changes to bridge maintenance in Nebraska, especially because Nebraska has no bridges like the one that collapsed in Miami.
“I would find it hard to believe that that’s going to change anything the way we do it in Nebraska, but I don’t know that yet,” he said. “If a bridge is open in Nebraska, it’s safe to cross.”
While Mika believes that the county is generally ahead of schedule when it comes to reopening bridges, he concedes that it’s difficult to ever truly catch up.
“These bridges, every day that goes by, there’s certain things that happen—there’s damage due to a flood, or a car might hit one or something,” Mika said. “We got a good start this year on having eight of them open already, but tomorrow you don’t know.”
The people of Saunders County, however, have been patient.
“The general public out there in the county has been very patient,” Mika said. “If I had the money, this would have been done a long time ago, but everything’s on a schedule and we’re trying to get everything opened up in a timely manner as fast as we can.”