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“This bridge is in need of repair”: Iowa worst in the nation for bridges in poor condition

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JESUP, Iowa (KWWL)- Iowa has the seventh most bridges in the country but the most bridges in need of repair than any other state. A new report from the Iowa Department of Transportation found 60 percent of the state's bridges are either in fair or poor condition.

A poor rating does not necessarily indicate a safety issue. IowaDOT said, “poor bridges have deterioration or damage that may need repair or replacement in the near future.”

Of the state's 24,184 bridges, 4,497 were rated as poor, and 9,996 were rated as fair. 9,340 bridges are considered to be in good condition. The ratings are based on inspections by the Federal Highway Administration.

If a bridge is determined to be unsafe, all traffic is shut down. According to IowaDOT, 348 bridges are currently closed and considered unsafe.

Brian Keierleber, Buchanan County Engineer, said that the situation would only continue to worsen if trucks hauling cargo get heavier and heavier.

"Take a bridge built in the 1960s; At that point in time, the heaviest load was about 64,000 pounds," Keierleber said. "Now we are up to 90,000 pounds, and in many cases, we're getting loads far heavier than that."

Keierleber manages nearly all of the county’s 260 bridges. He said some of them are a century old, if not older. He recently removed and upgraded 35 pin connected trusses that pre-date Henry Ford's Model T. Keierleber said bridges built decades ago weren’t designed with modern weight limits in mind.

In Buchanan County, the V-62 bridge over the Wapsipinicon River north of Jesup was built in 1962. Keierleber has been working on repairs on the bridge since he moved to Buchanan County in 1993.

In the last five years, the concrete piers holding up the bridge have started to deteriorate. The heavier weights of trucks have caused cracking and damage to the supporting structure of a bridge.

Deterioration on the concrete piers supporting the V-62 bridge over the Wapsi River Bridge in Buchanan County

The V-62 bridge sees heavier truck traffic because of an ethanol plant to the north of it.

"You can keep throwing money at it, but at some point, you've got to say hey, I've got to replace the structure," he said.

The bridge needs to be replaced, but the estimated cost of doing so is around $3 million. Keierleber's annual budget for bridge repairs is only $308,000.

"I have got to be looking at how I can stretch the life out on these bridges and still keep the others going and get towards replacing the [V-62] one," he said.

Keierleber estimated the current bridge has about 10 years left depending on how much patchwork is done, road salts and traffic. IowaDOT is holding the county apply for a federal RAISE grant to help replace the bridge.

"I can stretch out some things if I have to but that's that's good money after bad," he said.

10 to 15 other bridges in Buchanan County are also in poor condition. Financially, he said all of the defective bridges at once just couldn’t be done.

"I can't realistically say in the next 10 years I'm not building any other bridge but this one," he said. "That's not a realistic approach."

With limited funding, Buchanan County has had to get creative when it comes to replacing old bridges. They have built 30 bridges out of old flat railcars and plan to build two more by the end of the year.

A converted train car turned into a bridge in Buchanan County

Road and bridge projects are key elements of the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure package federal lawmakers are considering. Lawmakers are still trying to come to an agreement on a bipartisan deal for President Biden's infrastructure plan.

The latest installment includes $1.2 trillion in total spending, with $579 billion going towards actual infrastructure.

On Meet the Press Sunday morning, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio told NBC's Chuck Todd the Republican plan is better than the President's proposed one because it does not raise any taxes.

"it's not about infrastructure. It's a $6 trillion grab bag of progressive priorities," Portman said. "Ours is about core infrastructure, and it is paid for without raising taxes, which is key. I do think we have agreement on that, and I do think there are some very creative ways to pay for infrastructure that wouldn't be available for other expenses."

Appearing before Portman on Meet the Press, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, said raising the taxes on the wealthy is the best way to pay for the infrastructure package.

"What we have got to do in these budgets is address the crisis facing the American people. It is true that our roads and our bridges and our water systems and our wastewater plants are crumbling, and we need to invest in them. As I understand it, the so-called bipartisan plan only provides about 25 percent of the money the president asks for, about 580 billion dollars," Sanders said. "The working people of this country understand that for decades we have ignored their needs while the very richest people in this country have become richer."

The bi-partisan deal is $500,000 less than the Biden Administration initially planned to spend at $1.7 trillion.

"This needs to become a priority," Keierleber said. "If I have to sit here and wait till I get funds for 10 years, I will keep patching it, but in the meantime, another bridge will deteriorate too."

Iowa State University is testing a road product in Buchanan and several other counties that is more stable than gravel roads, meaning less money spent on maintaining them after heavy rains and harsh winters.

The product is similar to oil-and-chip but uses larger rocks to add strength and thicker layers. It was first used in Norway and has been tested in Minnesota and the Dakotas with success.

The county is also working with the Purdue University to look at ways to build bridges that last longer.

"We are working on some other concepts in particular bridge deck sealing, trying to seal off the concrete on the bridge, so that the concrete will last longer," Keieleber said.

If you want to see how your county or state’s bridges rank, visit this link.

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Daniel Perreault

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