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Roads get spotlight, but 447 Michigan bridges in serious condition or worse

Michigan worst in Midwest

No Midwestern state has a higher percentage of deficient bridges as Michigan, which at 10.7 percent is well above the national rate of 7.6 percent. Nationwide, it has the 10th highest rate.

StateTotal bridgesPercent deficient
Minnesota13,3585 %

Source: American Road and Transportation Builders Association

A year ago, Genesee County bridge inspectors discovered holes in the steel beams holding up a bridge over the Swartz Creek.

The two-lane bridge, on Grand Blanc Road near U.S. 23, is now being held together by temporary steel supports until it can be replaced in 2020 — a roughly $2 million project that, because of its urgency, will be done a year earlier than planned.

That will mean closing the 83-year-old bridge and detouring the roughly 16,000 vehicles that drive over it every day, disrupting businesses and pushing traffic onto an even-busier road a few miles north.

The Swartz Creek span has plenty of company in Genesee County — where roughly 20 percent of the county’s 120 bridges are in serious or critical condition — and across the state.

“The urgency to fix is great,” said Eric Johnston, the county road commission’s engineering director.

The money to fix them? Not so great.

Deteriorating roads dominate much of the budget discussion in Lansing. But aging bridges are quietly hurtling toward or past their expiration dates in communities across Michigan, from the rural Upper Peninsula to freeway-heavy Southeast Michigan, a Bridge Magazine analysis of state bridge data shows.

How bridge conditions are rated  

When bridges are inspected, they’re rated for the condition of various components, including their desk, superstructure and substructure.

Bridges scored on a 0-9 scale

  • Excellent (9): Bridge is new
  • Good (7-8): Still in good shape, may have minor wear
  • Fair (5-6): Wear and tear may start to show; addressed with preventative maintenance
  • Poor (4): Deteriorated, but not an imminent safety risk; move from preventative maintenance to major rehabilitation and they are inspected more frequently
  • Serious (3): Structural elements show major deterioration, but not an imminent safety risk. Repairs move from rehab to likely replacement. Bridge is inspected more frequently.
  • Critical (2): Severe deterioration requires replacement, either the entire bridge or the superstructure. Vehicle weights and lanes may be restricted for safety and more inspections. If not replaced will be closed. 
  • Failure (0-1): Bridge closed (or repaired for light use), or out of service. There are few bridges ranked in this category, according to state data, and all but one are closed. 

Source: Michigan Department of Transportation

More than 10 percent of Michigan’s 11,100 bridges are rated poor to failing, the 10th highest rate in the nation and far higher than other Great Lakes states. Among those are 447 bridges listed in April in serious or critical condition, an indicator of significant structural problems such as cracks or corrosion that will require replacement.

The state says it closes bridges that pose an imminent safety risk; 62 currently are closed.

“If the bridge is unsafe, we close it,” said Matt Chynoweth, chief bridge engineer at the Michigan Department of Transportation. “If the bridge is open, it is safe to cross.”

But even bridges that remain open through major repairs cost Michigan plenty. Nearby businesses suffer. More than 1,000 bridges now have posted weight limits, forcing larger or heavier vehicles to find other routes. Traffic becomes clogged along detours. And as more bridges transition from fair to bad shape in the next decade, repair costs are only expected to accelerate.

“I don’t want to say that I worry a lot,” Chynoweth said. “But my mind is never not on the bridges.”

Quick fix needed, but no ready money  

As with roads, the consequence of deferred bridge maintenance only grows. But there isn’t close to enough money to fix the spans that need major repair. MDOT estimates it could cost up to $1 billion to repair Michigan’s most serious bridge deficiencies by the middle of the next decade. That cost is expected to rise if not addressed soon as the  price of materials and labor rise, Chynoweth said.

Each year, counties and cities seek more than $300 million in funding from the state to help local road agencies fix bridges. But MDOT has only $48 million a year to allocate,  so most local projects remain unfunded.

Find troubled bridges in your community

Nearly 450 bridges across Michigan are rated serious or critical (49 of which  are closed because they are unsafe). Engineers grade bridges' safety based on the quality of the deck, superstructure, substructure and drainage culverts. Use this map to see which bridges have serious and critical ratings and what caused them.

Bridge rating areas in Michigan

Graphic courtesy of MDOT

Note: Data is as of mid-April

Source: Michigan Department of Transportation

The bridge over the Swartz Creek in Genesee County is among the successful ones — one of 26 local bridge reconstruction projects that received state funding last year, according to government data. That still leaves more than 400 others in serious or critical shape with no funding for bridge repair.

A new report by the Michigan Transportation Asset Management Council predicts that, absent new investment, Michigan bridges will “continue to decline after 2018” and that by 2028, “nearly all of the progress made toward improving bridge condition since 2004 could be lost.”

To address the funding gap, MDOT is laying the framework for an ambitious plan it says could get all of Michigan’s bridges in serious and critical condition in better shape by 2025.

Known as “bridge bundling,” MDOT is proposing to repair groups of bridges at once, such as those spanning the same body of water or those with similar design or construction needs. That, in theory, allows local road agencies to save money on bridge projects because the cost would be spread across multiple bridges and the department could standardize design and construction. In essence, they’d be buying in bulk.

Chynoweth said the department has been floating the idea since last fall with local road agencies and is in the process of collecting data from them that will help the state better calculate the cost.

The price tag will be expensive, though: a total of roughly $850 million to $1 billion by 2025.

Bridges last a long time and, like any long-term investment, “it’s really easy to kind of fool yourself into thinking we don’t need to put the money in today,” said Tim Colling, director of the Center for Technology and Training at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, which provides research, training and outreach on infrastructure to state and local governments.

The bridge-bundling approach would not require legislative approval, Chynoweth said, though MDOT is awaiting a decision from state lawmakers on next year’s budget to know how much funding it has to work with.

Under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s road funding plan, 4 percent of a proposed 45-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase would go to repair local bridges. That would yield roughly $428 million by 2025 — about half of what MDOT conservatively estimates is needed to fix the most troubled bridges.

Further complicating matters, Whitmer’s plan is already under fire from Republicans who control the budget process, both for the size of the gas tax hike and because she wants to change the way more than $2 billion in new revenue would be shared with counties and cities.

Bridge bundling has early support from the County Road Association of Michigan, which lobbies on behalf of road agencies in all 83 counties, though its director, Denise Donahue, noted that questions remain about how the program would be funded.

Republicans have their own funding questions.

Rep. Jack O'Malley, R-Lake Ann, chairman of the House transportation policy committee, said he is open to MDOT's bridge bundling approach. “I think what they’re attempting to do makes sense,” he told Bridge Wednesday. “You’ve got to bring in equipment, you’ve got to bring in manpower, you’ve got to bring in materials, so if you’re bringing it in for one (bridge project), it’s going to cost more than if you say, ‘Hey, when you’re done with this one, you move to that one and move to this one.’ You’ve got that economy of scale.”

But O’Malley, a first-term lawmaker, said he does not support Whitmer’s proposed gas-tax increase and is still learning about the road-building – and funding – process. He said he believes the state can find money outside of tax increases to put toward bridges.

In the meantime, Chynoweth said MDOT is exploring federal grants for which it wasn’t previously eligible. It also is considering whether to issue bonds worth $1 billion, raising enough money up front to complete the work, with the bonds to be repaid over several years using Whitmer’s proposed new revenue dedicated to bridges.

Since bridges generally are designed to last 75 years, he said, bonding could make sense because the debt, in theory, would be repaid before the bridge deteriorates.

“We hope that it’s realized that the investment is needed,” Chynoweth said. “I have a really hard time paying attention to or getting on board with infrastructure funding being a political debate. It’s a level of investment, just like you do with your house or your car. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you want your house to stay up and you want your car to run.”

Mindful of worst-case scenarios

If MDOT is doing its job correctly, Chynoweth said, drivers shouldn’t even notice when they cross a bridge.

A bridge collapse is so rare, he said, that when it happens it’s a big deal.

In 2007, an interstate bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, killing 13 people when it buckled into the Mississippi River below. Investigators ultimately determined the likely cause was outdated design, which left the bridge vulnerable to collapse if one element of it failed.

Its failure “really woke up a lot of us in terms of what could happen,” Chynoweth said.

He said he has not found a record of a bridge collapsing in Michigan from lack of oversight or maintenance. When it has happened, it’s generally been the result of human or natural causes. MDOT had to rebuild a bridge over Interstate 96 in Livingston County last year after it was hit by a truck, for example. And heavy rains contributed to destroying a bridge on U.S. 31 in Oceana County back in 1986.

A 1967 bridge collapse that killed 46 people in West Virginia led to adoption of federal inspection requirements. All bridges on public roads that are longer than 20 feet must be inspected at least every two years; those with structural problems are examined more often, sometimes every six months.

Bridges, like the roads that carry them, are showing their age. With many bridges designed to last 75 years, some built near the end of World War II are nearing the end of their practical life. Preventative maintenance can help prolong the life of an older bridge, but it’s not a permanent fix.

In Genesee County, nearly half of the 120 working bridges are 80 to 100 years old, said Johnston, the engineering director. They might have been rehabilitated over the years but may still contain some original parts, he said.

And so it goes across the state. In 2018, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Michigan bridges a C-minus grade, describing a landscape of bridges “being propped with temporary supports.”

The engineers’ group noted Michigan is taking positive steps to construct bridges faster while causing the least inconvenience to drivers, such as by doing much of the work offsite, pre-fabricating components and using newer materials to extend the lives of bridges.

But while state and local road agencies generally have improved bridge conditions across Michigan in the past 15 years, forecasts show the trend line heading down into the next decade.

Without money, bridge conditions to worsen

State engineers predict the quality of bridges in Michigan will decline markedly without increased funding for maintenance and repairs. The problem is most acute for bridges maintained by counties and communities. Note: 2023 and 2028 figures are forecasts.


Source: Michigan Department of Transportation

Close to 51 percent of all state and local bridges are in fair condition this year, according to state projections, with another 39 percent in good condition. One in 10 are considered to be poor.

By 2027, at current funding levels, bridges in fair condition will rise to 56 percent, but fewer bridges are expected to be in good shape and more will be in poor shape.

The problem is more acute locally, where 13 percent of city- and county-owned bridges are considered to be poor this year, compared to 6 percent of state-owned bridges.

Most local bridges in bad shape must be replaced soon. But many local road agencies are strapped for cash and can’t afford to do it on their own.

Counties and cities each receive a share of the state’s gas tax and vehicle registration fee revenue, divided up by a state formula adopted in 1951. They can also levy property tax millages to raise extra local money.

In 2018, Alger County in the Upper Peninsula received about $2.7 million from the state to spend primarily on road repairs, said Bob Lindbeck, engineer and manager of the county road commission. He estimates the cost of replacing three of the county’s four bridges that are in serious or critical condition at  $2.1 million — which would use up nearly all of what the county received for road funding.

Alger doesn’t have a countywide roads millage, so applying for some of the $48 million the state doles out each year for bridges is “really our only option” for repairs that go beyond preventative maintenance, Lindbeck said.

So far, the county has struck out.

Alger has applied for more than a decade to get state funding to remove and replace a corroded steel bridge crossing the Au Train River that’s been closed to traffic for about 15 years, Lindbeck said. The bridge, west of Munising, isn’t safe to cross, so the county maintains a dead-end road on either side.

Lindbeck said he is trying to convince the state to approve a $1.1 million replacement project for the bridge, since it could shave critical miles off a detour route if state highway M-28, which runs alongside it, ever needs to close.

“Especially on these low-volume (traffic) roads, it’s difficult to score high enough to get funding,” Lindbeck said. “The need is so great, and the funding falls short of that need.”

In 2015, the state Legislature passed a $1.2 billion road-funding package that raised half the revenue from increases to the state’s gas tax and vehicle registration fees and the other half by diverting state income taxes to roads. That amount, however, is widely considered insufficient to address the state’s road and bridge challenges.

Trying to replace all bridges in serious and critical condition by 2025 is an aggressive timeline, Chynoweth said. But he says it’s achievable — if Whitmer’s budget proposal succeeds. If Lansing reaches a compromise that lowers new revenue, the bundling concept could still work, but it would be harder to achieve the goal by 2025, he said.

That would leave local officials with dwindling options.

In Livingston County, three bridges along rural stretches were closed within 10 days in April. The county has since reopened one of the bridges and may reopen a second, but that will mean more maintenance and inspections to ensure their safety.

The third bridge, in Green Oak Township, shows signs of structural decay and sits too low over the Huron River, making it vulnerable to flooding. The last time the county asked the state for money to replace it, the cost was pegged at $2.1 million.

At this point, it’s likely the bridge will never reopened.

“For a road carrying 300 cars a day, it’s no longer a sensible investment,” said Mike Craine, managing director of the Livingston County Road Commission.

Money is scarce, he noted, and probably must be conserved for bridges that move the most vehicles.

Craine guesses Livingston County will have to make do with fewer bridges a decade from now: “I don’t think we can do justice to the entire system by saving every bridge.”

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