A recent report found the state of Ohio ranks near the bottom nationwide when it comes to the number of unsafe bridge
In Montgomery County, dozens of bridges are classified as structurally deficient and, transportation advocates say, federal and state funding used to repair and replace aging bridges just isn’t keeping up with growing demand.
The funding gap is complicating daily transportation for people who rely on deteriorating bridges across the Miami Valley.
It’s about an hour before Centerville schools let out for the day and empty yellow school buses line up outside school transportation headquarters.
Inside, supervisor George Sontag sits behind a small desk piled high with papers.
Sontag has coordinated student transportation in the Miami Valley for 56 years. Dealing with aging infrastructure is a big part of his job.
“We have some kind of road construction somewhere every day. Water-main break, fire hydrant, pothole in the road, gas lines, water lines, you name it,” he says.
This year? It’s a nearby bridge that’s causing big headaches for his bus drivers.
Just one day before the school year started, Montgomery County announced a popular bridge on Alex Bell Road in Washington Township was off-limits to schools. It was too risky for large vehicles to cross.
School buses would have to find alternate routes to transport students to and from school buildings. Sontag says staff worked late scrambling at the last minute to find ways around the dangerous bridge.
“About about 52 percent of our fleet had to have their routes altered. It was a little cumbersome but we made it.”
Buses and large trucks are prohibited from the bridge as a precaution, county officials say. Engineers have reduced the span’s weight limit to five tons and inspectors monitor its condition weekly.
Crews have also installed a line of special concrete support columns beneath the crossing.
Out at the bridge site, Montgomery County engineer Paul Gruner explains how the temporary supports help hold the span's deck up, like giant jacks lifting a car.
“They’re short, stubby columns with jacks on top of them to provide support at the middle of the span, so that we could keep the bridge open. Even though it has a five-ton limit we can at least keep it open to auto traffic and small pickup trucks, but trucks can’t drive on this bridge right now,” he says.
Without the temporary supports in place the bridge’s load rating was almost zero.
A growing number of Montgomery County’s 520 bridges are in similarly bad condition, Gruner says.
"We have roughly 30 that are classified as structurally deficient, which are the worst 30. But there's probably another 30 that we keep a close eye on," he says. "The basic problem is salt. That's our big enemy."
Salt used to clear ice in winter is speeding up the natural aging process of many bridges. It’s shortened this crossing's lifespan by 20 years.
A look underneath the bridge deck reveals the concrete is split, big chunks are missing and twisted metal cables called strands are poking through.
"So, if you go across here all the strands over to here are bad, and then you start at that edge. You've got about three of them there that are bad. And so there's there's only a couple of strands left that are any good," Gruner says.
Plans call for eventually replacing this span’s defective beams.
To keep up with the increasing needs, Gruner, says the county should be replacing an average of 10 deteriorating bridges a year. But the county can’t afford it.
“Our funding is the same basically as it was in 1989," he says. "I checked, and Big Macs cost twice as much as they did back then. Everyone's Social Security incomes have increased 95 percent since then. Everything we buy to repair and replace bridges has more than doubled in price. And so we can only do half as much as we should be doing,” he says.
Road and bridge construction is typically funded with money from two sources: vehicle-registration fees and state and federal gas taxes.
Gov. John Kasich recently signed into law a two-year, $7.8 billion state transportation budget. The bill allows counties to raise vehicle-registration fees by $5 to help pay for road and bridge construction but the budget did not raise the state gas tax.
The 28-cent tax generates nearly $2 billion a year. It hasn’t been increased in more than a decade.
“Ohio ranks high among all states for the quality and maintenance of our highway infrastructure and we did it without ever having to raise the gas tax,” Kasich said in a press release.
The federal 18.4-cent gas tax hasn't been increased since 1993. Transportation advocates say the tax isn’t keeping up with inflation, or with gains in fuel efficient vehicles that allow drivers to travel farther with less gas.
But efforts to increase the federal gas tax -- the major source of funding for the federal Highway Trust Fund -- have not been popular among many lawmakers.
Alison Goebel, executive director of the greater Ohio Policy Center, says the chronic funding shortfall from state and federal gas tax revenues makes it difficult for municipalities that are already struggling to maintain aging transportation infrastructure.
"Whatever infrastructure money that does come into the state or the region should really be prioritized for fix-it first projects: repaving, shoring up existing infrastructure, making that safe."
Meanwhile, as transportation funding lags, the cost of repairing and replacing crumbling roads and bridges has skyrocketed, says Brian O. Martin, executive director of the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission.
He calls for a comprehensive, regional long-term transportation funding policy to maintain the Miami Valley's critical transportation infrastructure, and prevent safety issues from getting worse.
“We really don't want to see any repeats of a bridge, you know, splashing into a river or creek. So we really need that the funding level to keep up with the needs,” he says.
On Aug. 1, 2007, the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, collapsed during rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145. The disaster called attention to issues of transportation infrastructure.
President Donald Trump has promised to boost infrastructure spending by $1 trillion over the next decade. Details of the plan have not yet been released.
But the president’s preliminary budget blueprint calls for cutting the Department of Transportation by 13 percent.