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Updated: Monday, 06 Aug 2012, 2:36 PM CDT
Published : Sunday, 05 Aug 2012, 8:42 PM CDT
FREDERICKSBURG, Texas (KXAN) - Just off Highway 16 outside of Fredericksburg, a bridge over the Pedernales River has become the focus of a funding dispute.
Walking carefully across the cattle guard in the middle of Boos Lane Crossing, Philip Taetz looked between the rusted rungs to the water flowing slowly below.
“My God,” Taetz, after setting foot on the riverbank, "if something's not done, the bulldozers are going to come in here and bulldoze this out."
No doubt, this crossing needs work. And Taetz, a retired Texas A&M civil engineering professor who lives just down the road, would know. Surveying the structure, he pointed out the bending metal support bars, warped wood and crumbling layers of cement.
“If you look at the steel supporting beams in here, there is a slight amount of deflection,” he said.
The Texas Department of Transportation wants to spend an estimated $370,000 from the federal Highway Bridge Program to replace the crossing, instead of simply repairing it. Taetz said he cannot justify that plan after learning the average daily traffic count – 25 cars.
'A crossing of convenience'
“I call it waste in the worse possible form,” he said. “These people up here do not have to depend on that. This is a crossing of convenience.”
True. There is another bridge about a mile down the road the state says is safe to use that gives cars access to the same highway. But Taetz is not the only one who would save a few minutes' drive time by keeping the Boos Lane Crossing up and running.
So would Gillespie County Commissioner Calvin Ransleben, who approved this costly decision.
“I figured people would think I had something to do with selecting that bridge,” Ransleben said. “I told TxDOT that I'd rather they put in another bridge instead of this particular bridge. I said to take it out and substitute another.”
But he soon learned that was not possible, even if the county wanted to use it for a more heavily traveled bridge. TxDOT said it was simply following guidelines set forth by Federal Highway Administration.
The bridge program's history
The Highway Bridge Program was most recently highlighted in the aftermath of 2007's I-35 bridge collapse that killed 13 people in Minneapolis. However, the program dates back to 1967 when a suspension bridge over the Ohio River in West Virginia collapsed, killing 46 people. It spurned a federal law the following year creating a national bridge inspection program, later influencing Congress to set aside funds for replacing bridges.
Texas receives about $230 million each year through this program. Around $170 million is for “on-system” bridges – those owned and maintained by TxDOT - and around $60 million for “off-system bridges – those like the Boos Lane Crossing owned and maintained by counties and municipalities.
Officials evaluate the state's 52,709 bridges every two years to determine their ability to remain service, ranking them based on a formula: 55 percent on the structural condition of the bridge, 30 percent on its serviceability and obsolescence and 15 percent on how essential it is to public use. Traffic count factors into the latter two.
“(TxDOT) said, 'As far as we're concerned, it doesn't matter if two people drive over it or if 100 people drive over it,” Ransleben said.
Lots of bridges, very few vehicles
According to state records, there are 417 bridges in Texas with fewer than 100 cars a day slated for replacement over the next five years for a total estimated cost of nearly $150 million.
“Many county roads have low traffic volumes, and those bridges being safe are important to the people driving on those bridges,” said Carlos Lopez, TxDOT's Austin District engineer.
The point calculation is based on a 0-100 scale, comparing the existing bridge to a new bridge designed to current engineering standards, according to TxDOT. The scoring helps to label the bridges as “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete.”
Bridges in those categories are eligible for money from the federal Highway Bridge Program. Bridges with a sufficiency rating of 50 or less may be replaced, or 80 or less for repair. For instance, the Boos Lane Crossing has a 36.2 sufficiency rating and is set to be replaced soon.
One county's perspective
Last fall, TxDOT wrote a letter to the Gillespie County Judge, addressing that specific bridge. Beyond the federal funding, it laid out several other options, including making repairs at the county's expense or closing it altogether.
“You'll find in most cases counties like keeping their bridges open, because it serves some segment of the public,” said Lopez.
After all, who would turn away “free” money? If Gillespie County did not use the funding for the Boos Lane Crossing, TxDOT would send it to the next one down the line – somewhere else in the state.
“They said they'd take that money back and put it back in their system, and the next highest-rated bridge would fall in,” Ransleben said. “No telling where that would be, but it won't be in the
Taetz insisted the county utilizing that funding for the Boos Lane Crossing is an unnecessary move that will cost taxpayers in the end, regardless of the source. He has urged commissioners to instead reconsider paying for repairs, which he believes would greatly reduce the cost of the project. Additionally, officials could put that money toward a more worthy project, perhaps save it for the future or even use it to help deal with the nation's debt.
“I can't cope with it,” he said. “It's projects like this that start here then build up many times around the country.”
TxDOT looks ahead
Still, TxDOT said its system is working well. Officials note that a recent report by Transportation for America indicates Texas has the third lowest percentage of structurally deficient bridges behind Florida and Nevada.
Over the next five years, TxDOT says:
Note that the Boos Lane bridge is actually part of a bigger project involving five other Gillespie County bridges. The county matches a certain amount of the federal funding and pays for one of the bridges on its own in exchange for the others. TxDOT says it helps to accelerate the pace of treating deficient off-system bridges statewide. See the entire list here .
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