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A Bridge Too Far

Deficient Bridges Show Shortcoming in Infrastructure Funding

By Sydney Cromwell

Video by Drew Young

Bridges carry Jefferson County drivers across the Cahaba River, railroad tracks, highway overpasses and more on their daily commute. And in 40 locations around the county, some of those bridges — carrying thousands of cars per day — aren’t measuring up to federal standards.

These bridges are considered “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete” by Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) standards. The expense of bridge replacements and budget constraints for cities, counties and the state mean many bridges will have a “structurally deficient” rating for years before finally being replaced.

“I have been told by [ALDOT Transportation Director] John Cooper directly … we have bridges that are in a failing rating, that need to be replaced and we don’t have the money to do it,” state Rep. David Faulkner of District 46 said. “I can’t tell you how many — it blew my mind — were in a condition where they’re considered failing.”

In 2016 data provided by the FHWA, 40 Jefferson County bridges and 15 Shelby County bridges were considered structurally deficient. Jefferson was tied with Lauderdale County for the second highest number of deficient bridges in the state in 2016, behind only Covington County.

It’s important to note that, although a “structurally deficient” bridge is considered to be “failing” from an engineering standpoint, that bridge isn’t necessarily in immediate danger of collapse or otherwise risking the lives of those who drive over it.

“Just because a bridge falls under the grading system as structurally deficient does not mean it’s unsafe,” ALDOT Media and Community Relations Bureau Chief Tony Harris said. “There are structurally deficient bridges on the system that will continue to function safely for decades.”

However, that deficiency does often mean increased inspections and limiting the weight that passes over a bridge. The longer a city, county or ALDOT has to wait before there’s funding to fix it, the worse the damage can get.

State Rep. David Faulkner

Components of a Bridge

Data compiled from The Shelby County Department of Engineering
Illustration by Kristin Williams

The FHWA requires every bridge in the country to be inspected by state or local officials every other year and that data must be reported to the federal government.

The different structural elements of bridges — including the deck, super- and substructures, culverts and channels — are graded on a scale of 0-9, with 9 being practically perfect condition and 0 being out of service and beyond repair. Anything graded at level 4 — “poor condition” due to advanced levels of damage — or less will typically earn the bridge a “load posting,” a sign limiting the types and weights of vehicles that can cross it. Depending on the level of structural damage, this is also the point when bridges start to receive structurally deficient ratings. The 2016 FHWA data showed 47 Jefferson County and 23 Shelby County bridges with at least one element rated at a 4 or worse, though the number considered “structurally deficient” is fewer.

A few of these include:

Downtown Birmingham

  • 21st and 22nd Street viaducts between First Avenue North and First Avenue South
  • 21st Street North over Village Creek
  • Fayette Avenue over Valley Creek
  • 12th Avenue North at I-59
  • I-20/59 near the BJCC

Mountain Brook

  • Canterbury Road at Watkins Brook
  • Old Brook Trail at Little Shades Creek

Trussville area

  • U.S. 11 over Little Cahaba River
  • Old Tennessee Pike Road over Gurley Creek
  • Deer Haven Road over Big Canoe Creek
  • Old Bradford Road over Self Creek tributary

Bessemer

  • Avenue I at AL-150
  • AL-150 at Little Shades Creek
  • 23rd Street North over Blue Creek

U.S. 280 corridor

  • Brookwood Green Trace over Little Shades Creek
  • Old Looney Mill Road over Cahaba River tributary
  • Caldwell Mill Road over Cahaba River tributary

North Shelby County

  • Cahaba Beach Road over Little Cahaba River
  • Caldwell Mill Road over Cahaba River
  • Crenshaw Swamp Road over Yellowleaf Creek
  • Highway 439 over Yellowleaf Creek
  • County Road 47 over Yellowleaf Creek
  • Alexander Road over Shoal Creek, off County Road 41
  • U.S. 280 over unnamed creek, east of County Road 51

Other cities with deficient bridges include Fairfield, Leeds, Kilgore, Ketona, Midfield, Irondale, McCalla and Tannehill State Park in Jefferson County, as well as Westover, Columbiana, Alabaster, Sterrett and other roads throughout Shelby County.

The 4 grade means inspections must increase to an annual basis, Shelby County bridge inspector Tommy Jones said. A bridge also becomes eligible for federal funding for repair or replacement at or below grade 4.

“Federal funding is life blood” for construction and maintenance projects, Shelby County engineer Randy Cole said. Like Harris, Cole said that structural deficiencies don’t always signal a coming catastrophic bridge failure, and it would take “a massive overload” to cause such a failure under normal conditions.

Once a bridge deteriorates to grade 1 for any element, it is considered in “imminent failure” condition and must be closed to traffic.

“If I put a 2 on a bridge, it would say we’re going to close this bridge but it’s still fixable. If I put a 1 or a 0, it’s not fixable,” Jones said.

Aside from structural deficiencies, a bridge can also be deemed “functionally obsolete.” These bridges don’t fulfill current traffic needs or otherwise do not meet modern standards in lane width, shoulder width or vertical clearance, regardless of whether they’re structurally sound.

The Interstate-20/59 overpass in downtown Birmingham, near the BJCC, is one such bridge. According to ALDOT, the 40-year-old structure is carrying about twice the traffic volume that its original design intended. A 1.5-mile stretch of the bridge is in the middle of a replacement project that will take hundreds of millions of dollars to improve I-20/59’s capacity to handle its current traffic load.

Bridge Inspection System

States, cities and counties must inspect bridges every two years and report their data to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The grading system for each part of the structure is rated from 0 to 9.

0. Failed Condition

Out of service, beyond corrective action.

1. Imminent Failure Condition

Major deterioration or section loss present in critical structural components or obvious vertical or horizontal movement affecting structure stability. Bridge is closed to traffic but corrective action may put back in light service.

2. Critical Condition

Advanced deterioration of primary structural elements. Fatigue cracks in steel or shear cracks in concrete may be present or scour may have removed substructure support. Unless closely monitored, it may be necessary to close the bridge until corrective action is taken.

3. Serious Condition

Loss of section, deterioration, spalling or scour have seriously affected primary structural components. Local failures are possible. Fatigue cracks in steel or shear cracks in concrete may be present. At this point, inspections are increased to every 90 days.

4. Poor Condition

Advanced section loss, deterioration, spalling or scour. At this point the permitted weight limit for the bridge must be cut in half, and a weight limit sign must be posted. Inspections must also be done yearly.

5. Fair Condition

All primary structural elements are sound but may have minor section loss, cracking, spalling or scour

6. Satisfactory Condition

Structural elements show some minor deterioration

7. Good Condition

Some minor problems

8. Very Good Condition

No problems noted

9. Excellent Condition

Deficient Bridges in 280 Area

There are 40 structurally deficient bridges in Jefferson County and 15 in Shelby County, according to 2016 data submitted by the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) to the FHWA.

SOURCE: Federal Highway Administration

Inspection & Priorities

Bridge inspector Tommy Jones with the Shelby County “snooper truck,” which enables him to easily inspect the underside of bridges.
Photo by Sydney Cromwell.

There were about 16,100 bridges listed statewide in the FHWA’s 2016 report. About 1,045 were included in data for Jefferson County and nearly 350 for Shelby County.

Cole said bridge inspectors, though they don’t always have a structural engineering background, are trained and licensed to look for telltale signs of deterioration such as cracks and rust in every part of the bridge, from the roadway and guardrails to the support structures and walls.

Each bridge has its own file, complete with photographs, and any damage must be meticulously measured and reported to ALDOT, which passes this on to the federal government.

“Knowledge and databases in our business is important,” Cole said. “You cannot overstate the importance of properly evaluating, inspecting and then maintaining bridges.”

Many small issues with bridges can be fixed within a regular year’s repair budget, both Cole and Harris said. Once they get more serious, however, Jefferson County Roads and Transportation Department Director Cal Markert said “most of the time you don’t [repair]; you have to replace it.”

Harris said ALDOT tries to work repairs into its scheduled replacement process when possible, but emergency conditions can prompt lane closures, changes to traffic patterns or shifting the schedule to put a new project at the top of the list. He noted one bridge in Montgomery that had construction underway nine months after an inspection showed a serious deficiency, rather than the more average three-year process.

“If anything about an inspection reveals an unsafe condition, it’s repaired immediately,” Harris said. “The key for us is always safety.”

The I-20/59 project that is currently underway also had an accelerated timeline because it is a key artery for traveling through Birmingham. Harris said the I-20/59 project was such a high priority that ALDOT even budgeted it separately from other bridge replacement projects.

A bridge replacement eats up a significant chunk of a budget, particularly for cities and counties. Cole called them “ultra expensive.” From design and initial engineering to construction, replacing a bridge starts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and frequently climbs into the millions.

A deficient bridge on Canterbury Road in Mountain Brook, for example, is estimated to cost around $560,000 to replace, Mountain Brook Public Works Director Ronnie Vaughn said.

On the other hand, Markert said one of his current county projects, the Locust Fork River bridge at Mt. Olive Road, is estimated to cost about $6.2 million to replace. And the I-20/59 project, Harris said, could reach the hundreds of millions.

When choosing which bridge project is a higher priority, Cole said he works from a “sufficiency rating” based on severity of the damage, traffic volume, length and accessibility of detours and other factors. A bridge that is the only access point to an area or serves thousands of drivers per day will move up the priority list compared to bridges with nearby alternate routes and less traffic.

Sufficiency ratings are scaled from 0 to 100, and Cole said federal funding to offset the cost of replacement is only available for bridges with sufficiency ratings lower than 50. The lower the rating, the more urgent the need for repair.

“I’ve seen some bridges with single digit sufficiency ratings,” Cole said. “That’s one that’ll keep you awake at night.”

Shared Responsibility

Video by Drew Young

Bridges in Alabama are covered by a patchwork of jurisdictions. Harris said ALDOT is responsible for bridges and overpasses on state, federal and interstate roadways, totaling about 5,745 across the state – just over a third of all Alabama bridges.

The rest are part of local roads maintained by cities and counties, though Cole said their comparatively small pool of resources means those municipalities often have to lean on state grants like ATRIP (Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program) or federal funding. ALDOT also will rely on federal funds for many of its projects.

Harris said ALDOT spends between $80 million and $100 million on bridge replacement, which he said usually translates to about 40 replaced bridges annually. There is also a $165 million budget for routine and emergency maintenance for all ALDOT roads and bridges, which Harris said is not broken down into specific amounts for each type of project.

ALDOT’s five-year plan for 2016-21 includes 19 bridge replacement or widening locations in Jefferson County and 10 in Shelby County. Of those, seven Jefferson and three Shelby projects are on bridges that have ratings below grade 4.

Those bridges on the list include: Springdale Road over Fivemile Creek; the 21st and 22nd Streets viaducts, in downtown Birmingham; Old Brook Trail at Little Shades Creek and Canterbury Road at Watkins Creek, in Mountain Brook; State Road 5 over Locust Fork, in Sumiton; Cahaba Beach Road over the Little Cahaba River; Caldwell Mill Road over the Cahaba River; 23rd Street North over Blue Creek, in Bessemer; and County Road 441 over Fourmile Creek.

Harris said this list includes only major projects that are likely to be bid out to contractors, not smaller projects handled in-house. The list is not a guarantee of when work will happen, he said, because many variables can change ALDOT’s priorities or a particular project’s timeline.

In Shelby County, Cole’s total annual budget is around $650,000 for construction, plus repair work within the engineering department’s maintenance budget. However, he said it would cost an estimated $1.36 million annually to replace the roughly 190 bridges under his supervision on the recommended 50-year cycle, more than double the funds he receives.

Jefferson County takes on about four bridge projects per year, Markert said, though sometimes a large project will come along that slows the pace down as its costs may be spread out over multiple years. Bridge replacement on Mt. Olive Road over the Locust Fork River, which started construction this past summer and is estimated to cost around $6.2 million, is just such a project.

Of the roughly 300 bridges Markert’s department is responsible for in the county, he estimated about 30 of them have posted weight limits, signaling a deficiency area. With a single bridge replacement eating up millions of dollars, Markert said it’s hard to get the funding they need to take a more aggressive approach to replacing these deficient bridges.

“A lot of this comes down to money,” Markert said.

Construction projects in progress or planned for 2017-18

SOURCE: Department of Transportation Five-Year Plan 2016-21

When compared to the rest of the nation, Jefferson and Shelby Counties stack up fairly well in terms of bridge deficiencies. Data compiled by The Washington Post in February 2017 showed that 3.8 percent of Jefferson County bridges and 4.6 percent of Shelby County bridges are rated structurally deficient, compared to the national average of 9.4 percent and the state average of 8 percent.

Not every Alabama county can say the same. The Washington Post’s data showed 64.3 percent of bridges are deficient in Crenshaw County, south of Montgomery, and several other counties also exceeded the national average, though Jefferson County has a higher number of bridges than most counties.

The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, compiled by the American Society of Civil Engineers, gave Alabama’s bridges a C-minus grade but also reported that the number of structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges decreased from roughly 2,300 in 2005 to just less than 1,400 in 2014.

That good news had a caveat: “As the age and condition of bridges not currently classified as such get older and deteriorate without being replaced or being rehabilitated, it is only a matter of time before the number of deficient bridges will rise again,” the report said.

Harris said the bridges under ALDOT’s sole jurisdiction have seen a similar overall improvement. He said Alabama had 213 state, interstate or federal bridges graded as “structurally deficient” in 2007, and only about 100 today.
“So that’s more than a 50 percent reduction,” Harris said. “We’ve put a big dent in the number of bridges that are categorized as structurally deficient in Alabama since 2007.”

But city- and county-maintained bridges, while showing an overall statewide decrease in the Infrastructure Report Card, haven’t seen the same rate of repair as bridges on the state’s major roadways.

“The number of structurally deficient bridges on the ALDOT system is much lower than on the city or county system,” Harris said.

Dollars & Cents

Video by Drew Young

Completely eliminating the problem of structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges, in Jefferson County and statewide, comes with a price tag in the millions — and billions.

A 2011 report by the Association of County Engineers of Alabama (ACEA) estimated that Jefferson County would require just under $4 million per year to replace county-maintained bridges on a 50-year cycle. ACEA estimated that Alabama’s counties — not including ALDOT or city bridge projects — should be investing $88 million statewide each year on bridge projects, and the cost to replace all county bridges more than 50 years old would total about $1.3 billion across Alabama.

“Without action, the problem will only grow worse and more costly. Regular operating dollars certainly are not sufficient; citizens need a long-term plan for roads and bridges,” the ACEA report stated.

Add in city- and state-funded bridge replacements, and the cost would only climb higher.

The American Road and Transportation Builders Association’s (ARTBA) 2017 bridge report estimated that it would take $29 billion to complete needed work on every Alabama bridge identified as in need of repair. That same report stated only $1.7 billion in federal funding was spent on Alabama bridge projects between 2005-14.

State budget documents break down federal spending by aeronautics and transit, but do not provide specifics on how much is put toward bridges rather than roads, making it difficult to directly compare the ARTBA number to budget records.

ALDOT’s budget includes line items for Federal Aid Funds and Project Participation for both roads and bridges, which have varied widely from year to year. Federal funding allocated for these totaled $780.1 million in the 2005-06 fiscal year and had increased to $868.2 million by 2012-13, though funding varied in that time.

Restructuring of the budget document in 2013-14 saw the removal of these line items, as well as similar aeronautics federal funding items, replaced with the broader category of “Federal Reimbursements – Capital Outlay.” This revenue source provided $902.3 million during 2013-14 and $855.7 million in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

However, it’s not clear how this money is divided between roads, bridges and other Department of Transportation projects.

The Infrastructure Report Card recommends an increase in federal, state and local infrastructure funding targeted toward deficient bridge repair, as well as increasing the federal motor fuels tax to fund the U.S. Highway Trust Fund. President Donald Trump has discussed a $1 trillion infrastructure plan since his term began, but details have not been finalized and the plan has not yet been implemented.

In the long term, the Infrastructure Report Card also recommended state and local governments find alternative funding aside from gas taxes.

Faulkner said Alabama’s gas taxes, which are the primary source of road and bridge project funding from the state level, are seeing a decline in revenue as more fuel-efficient vehicles result in fewer stops at the gas station. The gas tax has not been raised since 1992.

Faulkner provided information from the Alliance for Alabama’s Infrastructure, which stated that $128 million per year is lost in gas tax revenue due to fuel-efficient vehicles. The same report stated that construction costs have nearly doubled in the 25 years since the gas tax was last raised.

“We are in a terrible situation with our roads and bridges according to ALDOT. It’s concerning. And when you haven’t raised your gas tax, we really don’t have the money to go toward it,” Faulkner said. “If you’re buying less, then the state’s just getting less.”

According to budget documents on the state Executive Budget Office website, the revenue from gasoline excise and motor fuel taxes was about $368.6 million in the 2005-06 fiscal year and $364.2 million in 2015-16. Within that decade, revenue decreased sharply beginning in the 2007-08 budget, coinciding with the nationwide recession, and only began to approach pre-recession levels in 2014-15.

While Faulkner said he’s not advocating an increase in the tax, he does want citizens and state representatives to be willing to talk about it. An infrastructure bill will possibly be debated in the upcoming legislative session that starts in 2018, but Faulkner said he doesn’t expect the funding part of the bill to be discussed or voted on.

“We have to be willing to consider it because we haven’t addressed it in so long and I can’t think of any other way,” Faulkner said. “We’re in a predicament, and during an election year, it’s going to be really hard for this to pass.”

While a catastrophic bridge failure is unlikely, the cost and potential dangers of deficient bridges will only compound the longer funding doesn’t meet needs.

“According to ALDOT, we’re at a real breaking point,” Faulkner said.

SOURCE: Alabama Executive Budget Office
Illustration by Kristin Williams