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South Dakota's risky bridges lie on lesser roads

This Wednesday photo shows a bridge in Brown County near Statford that is one of 127 bridges in South Dakota that are deemed both “fracture critical” and “structurally deficient.” (Associated Press)

PIERRE — Scattered across South Dakota, mostly on lightly traveled gravel roads, 127 bridges carry dual designations that indicate they have problems.

The bridges are deemed "fracture critical" because they don't have redundant protections and are at risk of collapse if a single vital component fails. They also are designated "structurally deficient," in need of rehabilitation or replacement because at least one major component has problems that have led inspectors to rate their condition as poor or worse.

The Associated Press analyzed data involving 607,380 bridges in the National Bridge Inventory, and found 65,605 structurally deficient bridges and 20,808 fracture critical bridges, according to the most recently available data. Some 7,795 bridges nationwide fall into both categories — a combination of red flags that experts say is particularly problematic.

The inventory found 126 such bridges in South Dakota, but state transportation officials say the number is actually 127 due to a lag in reporting. The state's list omits two bridges that have been closed but adds three new ones.

None of the problem bridges are on state highways, which carry a high volume of traffic and heavy trucks. Nearly all are on county roads with little traffic in rural areas, and many have weight limits that prohibit heavy vehicles. While the risk is less than if the bridges were on heavily traveled roads, that means cash-strapped county and municipal governments struggle to address the bridges.

Kevin Goeden, the state Transportation Department's chief bridge engineer, said each bridge is inspected every year or two, so each bridge on the list is safe for travel by vehicles within the maximum weight limit.

"It doesn't mean it's unsafe. It may be posted, and it should be safe up to that posted load," Goeden said.

Brown County is responsible for four bridges on the list — all about a century old or older— and one has been closed. County Highway Superintendent Jan Weismantel said the other three are dying of old age, but should be safe as long as drivers don't exceed the load limits, 3 tons for one and 5 tons for the other two. Those restrictions basically limit traffic to a car or pickup.

"Who's to say that somebody's not taking something that weighs more than 6,000 pounds across a 3-ton max bridge?" Weismantel said. "It's kind of a gamble. It's also very dangerous. Somebody could get killed."

Weismantel is in the same situation as her colleagues in many other South Dakota counties. Brown County has 152 bridges, and she has to use her $9 million annual road and bridge budget to maintain the 42 bridges on heavily traveled county roads. The other 110, typically on less traveled township roads, are of lesser priority. Most can't be replaced because a new bridge would cost at least several hundred thousand dollars, she said.

Bridge 180, near the small town of Barnard, was recently closed because of holes and other problems that made it unsafe. It would have cost $500,000 to replace, Weismantel said.

"I don't have the extra money to do it," Weismantel said.

State Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, has tried for years to get more money for state and local roads and bridges. The state highway system is in good shape because federal stimulus money was used to fix nearly all bad roads and bridges, but counties, townships and some cities still need more money, he said. The Legislature in 2011 raised annual registration fees for vehicles to provide what now amounts to an extra $30 million a year for local government roads and bridges, but that fell about $50 million short of their estimated need of $80 million a year, Vehle said.

"Everyone wants good roads and bridges. No one wants to pay for it," Vehle said.

The state bridge system, which carries most traffic, is in good shape. The DOT reports that just 79 of the state-owned 1,798 bridges, or 4.4 percent, were rated structurally deficient.

Of the South Dakota bridges rated structurally deficient and fracture critical in 2012, only two were owned by the state and neither is in general use any more.

A bridge over gravel-surfaced state Highway 53 in south-central South Dakota was replaced by a new bridge when that portion of the road was relocated. The state is transferring the old bridge to a private landowner, Goeden said. "There's really no traffic on it."

A bridge leading to Fischer Grove State Park near Frankfort was closed after flooding wrecked the structure in 2011. It's now open only to golf carts and pedestrians. The state moved a campground to another side of the lake accessible by another road.

"We built a new campground for a lot less than that it would have cost to build a bridge," said Bob Schneider, assistant state parks director.