Crumbling bridges and roads: a bigger problem than you think

Published: Feb. 21, 2013 at 9:28 PM EST|Updated: Jul. 11, 2013 at 3:05 PM EDT
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Close-up of deterioration of Broad River Road bridge over Interstate 26
Close-up of deterioration of Broad River Road bridge over Interstate 26

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - It's the last thing you want to see under the bridge your family crosses to get home. Not just hairline cracks, but chunks of crumbling concrete where the bridge deck meets the footings, like on the Broad River Road Bridge over Interstate 26 in Lexington County.

Thousands drive over the bridge every day.  

"Because there's no identified funding to replace this bridge, which would be pretty considerable over the interstate," said A. Tony Magwood, SCDOT engineer. "We came in here and put what we call support saddles."

Support saddles are metal beams used to secure the structure, keeping it open.

"Basically extending the weight of the cap outward so that they have more area to rest on the good portion of the beams," said Magwood."It prolongs the life of the bridge until funding can be identified to replace it."

More than 880 other bridges like it, with similar problems, are on a structurally deficient list. Those bridges are inspected every six months because of their conditions.

Thousands of state owned bridges are substandard. Hundreds are load-restricted and as many as ten were forced to close because of their condition.

More than 700 are so old, they're functionally obsolete. Yet you drive over many of them every day.

Older bridges like one on Cedar Creek Road near Blythewood fall on another list: functionally obsolete. 777 bridges make that list.

The bridge is 73 years old, an old Works Progress Administration bridge, built by the local labor available under rules unacceptable by today's standards. Because this bridge falls on both lists the SC Department of Transportation lowered the weight limit.

"The weight limit has been dropped to eight and 17 tons gross per axle," said Magwood.

Lowering weight limits is a way to get around funding a reconstruction.

"It's just not safe to use them in ways that are not in accordance with the posted restrictions," said SC Secretary of Transportation Robert St. Onge, Jr.

But are those restrictions followed?

As a WIS camera was rolling, a likely overweight camper was pulled across the bridge. Within ten minutes, a tractor trailer crossed, certainly overweight, disobeying the warnings and detours. The empty trailer is worse for the bridge, according to the DOT, because of the impact of the bouncing trailer.

"It's dangerous to the person doing it," said St. Onge. "It's dangerous to those who follow behind because that bridge deteriorates at an accelerated pace when you're putting that kind of load, a load that bridge is not prepared for."

Weight restrictions cause another problem for emergency vehicles. While an ambulance fits within most weight restrictions, a fire truck, full of water, may not.

"That could, in essence, affect some of our emergency services and some things that we provide or that the public is provided," said Magwood.

When weight restrictions aren't enough, closure is the only option. Right now ten state bridges have been closed to traffic. They are awaiting funding for repairs.

"We have them in priority order to get to them and repair them as best we can, and get those restrictions moved," said St. Onge.

The state has three erector set bridges, temporary structures, used as replacements if conditions are right. Two are currently in service in Chesterfield and Darlington Counties.

Without additional funds, the state's 8,000 bridge system continues to age.

"They're aging at a faster rate each year," said Magwood.

Putting the state further in the hole if something isn't done soon. It's reached a point where the governor is urging the legislature to use $100 million in additional state revenue toward the bridges and roads you drive everyday.

"We don't need to wait for one of those 400 bridges to fall apart for something to happen," said Governor Nikki Haley.

When you consider 89% of secondary roadways are in fair to poor condition, they need work too.  South Carolina is the 29th largest state, but it has the fourth largest road network for the DOT to manage.

"We have the responsibility for a lot of roads that in other states would be local roads," said St. Onge.

How did that happen?  Over time, legislators simply added the roads to the state's list.  For example, look no farther than Columbia College and Secondary 124

"It is actually the main entrance to the Columbia College," said Magwood.

It's been in the DOT system for years, serving Columbia College traffic, but pulling state resources for repair.  What the DOT suggests should be local or private funds.

"Every so often we'll get calls to come out to come out here and do maintenance," said Magwood.

Secondary roads, the ones you drive on to get home, don't get the attention they should.

"I would like to take road X and be able to give it a full treatment and maybe all I can afford is to patch it, and I know that citizens are not happy with that," said St. Onge.

It's a statewide problem. Consider Stallion Drive in northern Richland County.  It's a good representation of the state's secondary road system. It's a neighborhood road under DOT jurisdiction and riddled with potholes.  Federal dollars aren't available.

"Re-surfacing for state dollars is extremely limited," said Magwood.
Meaning pothole patch versus re-surfacing.  The numbers we found are dismal: 87% of primary roads in the state are fair to poor condition.  89% of secondary roads are fair to poor, leaving the DOT Secretary to tell us:

"My job and the department's job is to carefully manage the decline of the state highway system," said St. Onge. "We don't have enough to make it holistic and good so we're going to prioritize and we prioritize by recommending to the commission those things that are safety issues."

That's not good enough for Charles Crouch, who fights congestion on Riverchase Drive at Corley Mill Road. And it's about to get worse.

"You don't manage the decline, you manage the improvement," said Crouch. "Wouldn't you say? And you've got to manage the money to do the improvement.

Riverchase is .8 of a mile from the new River  Bluff High School that's going to put another 2,000 students on the road in August.

"In the mornings, right now traffic can be 1.4 miles down the road, past the high school and its not even open yet," said Crouch.

The DOT says congestion costs the state 2.6 million in economic activity every year.  The state has come up with a $2.2 million band aid, a roundabout just before 378, but not a permanent solution for the problem, even though this school was talked about as early as 2007.

"Six years," said Crouch.  "Six years and we can't make something happen. We got the wrong people making those decisions it sounds like to me."

The DOT has agreed to widen a portion of 378 from I-20 to Three Mile Creek, but it won't be done in time.

"I don't know that we'll see that whole project come to fruition prior to the opening of that school in August of 2013," said Crouch.

The DOT says when new subdivisions or apartment complexes are built, none of the fees collected go toward the improvement of infrastructure around those new developments.

Here's the reality.  The DOT says it would take $1,476 million a year for 20 years to bring the state's roads to a level of "good."  That all depends on the state legislature, which sets funding.

We've learned the House Ways and Means Committee asked the state economist to give them the impact of putting more of the tax from titling vehicles toward the state highway fund to be used exclusively for road maintenance.  It would cost the General Fund more than $82 million and the Education Improvement Act more than $20 million.

Governor Haley has also laid out a plan for an additional $90 million in new transportation funding and  has urged $100 million in strong revenue collection to go toward transportation.  That would be a one time payment, not permanent funding to patch the state's deteriorating roads.

Some have proposed raising the state's gas tax, the fourth lowest in the nation at 16.8 cents.  Only 75% of the money generated for it comes back to the DOT.

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