BILL DRAPER Associated Press
KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) - Kansas may have more problem bridges than states such as California and Illinois, but experts say that doesn't tell the whole story of a state filled with century-old rural spans that carry just a few vehicles every day.
According to Federal Highway Administration statistics from last year, Kansas had 347 bridges - out of more than 25,000 statewide - that were both rated in poor condition and lack the structural redundancies needed to guard against collapse. That compares with 302 in California and 189 in Illinois.
But most of those 347 bridges in Kansas are aging, county-owned spans. They're a reflection of an aging rural population that doesn't have the financial clout to keep the little-used roadways open.
"In the big counties, most of the population doesn't use those bridges - just farmers and people who live in rural areas," said Norman Bowers, local road engineer for the Kansas Association of Counties. "It's an issue of priority for the counties. Do you spend money to replace a bridge when only 10 people a day use it?"
A new Associated Press analysis of federally collected data identified 7,795 bridges nationwide that are both fracture critical and structurally deficient. The tally comes from data states submitted to the federal government's National Bridge Inventory.
Fracture critical bridges are at risk of collapse if a single, vital component fails. They are often are truss bridges that were inexpensive to build and were adequate at the time they were constructed, but weren't designed to handle large, modern farm equipment.
Structurally deficient bridges are in need of repair or replacement because at least one major component has advanced deterioration or other problems that led to them being deemed in poor condition or worse.
Calvin Reed, the Kansas Department of Transportation's chief bridge engineer, said most of the structurally deficient and fracture critical bridges in the state are in rural areas and not under state supervision. He estimated that about 1 percent of state-owned bridges fall into both categories, but said the state has adequate resources to address any safety concerns.
Among the state-owned bridges that concern KDOT the most are the Lewis and Clark Viaduct and the Fairfax Bridge, both of which carry traffic from Kansas City, Kan., across the Missouri River into Kansas City, Mo.
"Nothing about either of those bridges makes us feel the public is in danger," Reed said. "But we're watching them closely because they are old structures."
In eastern Kansas, Miami County engineer J.R. McMahon said many of his county's bridges were built nearly a century ago, when farm equipment wasn't much bigger than a full-size sport utility vehicle. As the bridges get older, they become "functionally obsolete" because they are too narrow to handle modern agricultural traffic, he said.
"We should have started replacing then in the '60s, '70s and '80s," McMahon said. "Fast forward to today, and we've gotten ourselves behind. These bridges are so old there will never be enough funds to replace all of them."
Even some bridges built in the 1940s and '50s are causing the county problems because they were built with uncoated steel that is susceptible to rusting. The county does a good job of putting down salt in the winter, he said, but that accelerates the deterioration of those bridges.
Instead of being replaced at a cost of $750,000 to $1.5 million, he said large rural bridges that carry an average of 20 to 50 cars a day are being closed. He said 10 such bridges probably will be closed in his county in the next 10 to 15 years.
"At the end of the day, this is where counties have to face it: you are going to close bridges," he said. "The funds are not available and it's too massive of a project to get them all done."
Saline County engineer Neil Cable said his county has closed 38 bridges since 2007, mostly by moving from a one-mile section grid system to a two-mile section layout. With a 25-year bridge program and a budget of about $1 million annually to fix or replace bridges, Cable said his county is "down to what we need."
"Saline County had roads every mile in a grid-type pattern that intersected with a lot of creeks," he said. "Now the roads are every two miles."