Bad Bridges: A Special Report

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - There are a lot of bodies of water in South Alabama, and a lot of bridges to cross them.  One such bridge crosses Pigeon Creek in Covington County.  It's almost 100 years old and showing its age.

"We keep maintaining it, keep it in a safe condition for what it's posted for, but eventually it's going to deteriorate to the point where it's not worth it to try and repair,"  said Darren Capps, the Covington County Engineer.

It's one of the 1,302 bridges in the state that are considered structurally deficient.  That's the same designation of the bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed in 2007, killing 13 people.  Many structurally deficient bridges are considered safe - as long no vehicles over the weight limit drive over them.

The weight limit on this bridge is 3 tons - basically the weight of a car or light truck.

As a comparison, a school bus weighs about 13 tons.  Log trucks, a big part of the landscape in South Alabama, weigh 44 tons.

"Occasionally I get reports of log trucks crossing this bridge," Capps said.  "How dangerous is that,' Capps was asked.   "Well, I wouldn't cross it with a log truck."

According to data provided by the Association of County Engineers of Alabama, Covington County has 52 failing bridges.  Chilton County has 61. Other counties are dealing with the issue on a smaller scale.  Wilcox County has 29 such bridges; Crenshaw and Pike counties have 27 each; Macon County has 24.

[How many bridges are deficient in your county? (.pdf)]

Capps said it would cost at least $3 million to repair the Pigeon Creek Bridge. So once it deteriorates further, it will likely be closed.

That would be bad news for people who live along County Road 107.

"This bridge services quite a few people that work in Chapman at the plywood mill," said C.N. Floyd, who lives near the bridge.   "They would find themselves instead of six miles to McKenzie, it will be approximately 17 or 18 to get around, so that would be a big issue with those people."

In Macon County, there's an example of what could happen when a county bridge has to close.  The bridge on County Road 22 near Tuskegee was closed a couple of years ago.  Since then, that closing has caused inconvenience for people who live in the area.

"They have to travel 30, 40 miles the other way to get to Tuskegee," said Dr. Ed Bozeman, who retired to the area.  "Instead of going to Tuskegee, they go to Auburn now to buy their products and get what they need.  "We have pleading for them to open it back up, but they told us they don't have any money."

Sonny Brasfield, the Executive Director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama said many counties with a large network of county roads and bridges can't afford to maintain them.  Counties only receive a certain amount of revenue from the state's gas taxes, and 10 percent of those monies must be distributed to municipalities.

"And as a result, those bridge problems, those bridge problems as each year goes by, they get worse and worse," Brasfield said.

But if weight limits are enforced, sectors like the agriculture and timber industries could be crippled.

"We would have huge acreage of property that would be landlocked, so that produce couldn't come in or out," Brasfield said.  "Products couldn't come in or out, because to load a heavy truck to leave would require crossing a restricted bridge."

The Alabama Forestry Commission shares those concerns.  Chris Issacson, the organization's Executive Vice President, said at least one tract of timber land in South Alabama had been cut off because of a weight-restricted bridge.

"It will render the timber value to zero, because you can't access it," Issacson said.  "There is no value to the timber, if you can't get it to market."

The Association of County Commissions is supporting an effort to allow counties to levy gas taxes specifically earmarked for county road projects.  But it acknowledges it could be a tough sell when gas prices are pushing $4 a gallon.

"I don't think the citizenry here or virtually anywhere else in the state will be supportive of any additional taxes," C.N. Floyd said.  "That's why I think it's important that we all try to do what we can if you're too heavy for the bridge, don't go across it."

But in Macon County, where three bridges within a mile on County Roads 26 and 22 are either closed or weight-restricted, there is at least some support.

"If that's what it takes to get the bridge done, let's pay the tax and get it across there," Dr. Bozeman said.  Look how many dollars are being missed by the city of Tuskegee because the bridge isn't fixed."

The House has passed a bill that would allow gas taxes to be collected before fuel reaches the gas pump.  Brasfield said it could help bring an additional 10-15% in tax revenue.

After the session ends, Brasfield says the group will push state leaders to float a bond issue that would help pay to replace bridges.  A bond issue in 2000 put a serious dent in the problem, but Brasfield said it has flared again.

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