SYRACUSE -- Bob Engelbrecht grew up with the old bridge that links his farm with his dad's up the road.

When he as a boy, the bridge was shorter and spanned a shallower Wolf Creek.

"It's gotten a lot deeper," Engelbrecht said Wednesday.

Today, Wolf Creek resembles a small canyon with steep banks that look like cliffs. Flood waters flow under the bridge through a metal culvert big enough to squeeze in a pickup.

And Engelbrecht, 63, worries that if nothing is done to fix the bridge and the bank erodes more, the span will cave in.

"It would be a real headache if the bridge would ever go out," he said.

Engelbrecht and his dad, Howard, would have to drive an extra five miles or more on gravel roads to buy supplies and get their crops to town, and they'd be unable to get to farm equipment at each other's places.

The bridge between their farms is far from the only one in Otoe County in bad shape.

"There are about 300 bridges in Otoe County, and 25 to 50 bridges are closed at any time," said Otoe County Commissioner Tim Nelsen. "We are fighting a losing battle."

Nelsen was a part of a media tour on Wednesday that called attention to the growing problem of deteriorating county bridges in Nebraska. A similar tour was held in Cuming County on Tuesday.

"What you're seeing here, you're going to see in all 93 counties," said Larry Dix, executive director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials.

A recent report by TRIP, a national nonprofit research group based in Washington, D.C., found that 19 percent of Nebraska's rural bridges were rated structurally deficient in 2013, the seventh highest in the nation.

Nebraska has about 15,500 bridges owned by the state, counties and cities. It has the 16th most bridges in the nation.

Every one of those bridges is inspected once every two years, and inspectors determine how many tons each can support safely. 

"If a bridge can't carry a legal load, we will post it," state bridge engineer Mark Traynowicz said during a recent interview. "Our bridges are safe."

The TRIP report needs to be put in perspective, he said.

"They count a 20-foot bridge in Nebraska the same as the Golden Gate Bridge or any length of bridge, and that is what makes Nebraska look bad," Traynowicz said.

The Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, chaired by Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton, is doing an interim study to address the county bridge infrastructure problem. Hearings are scheduled for Syracuse, West Point and Lincoln in the coming weeks.

One of the key study goals, Dubas said, is to find a way to get more financial help to counties to fix deteriorating bridges. She said the problem has been getting worse since the Legislature eliminated state aid to counties in 2012.

"The state needs to be a partner with local government," Dubas said Wednesday.

All 93 Nebraska counties must share the $26 million in federal money that comes to the state to help repair rural roads and bridges. Otoe County's share this year was $265,000, which officials said is not enough to address the problem.

Otoe County Commissioner Nelsen said the price tag for replacing the bridge near the Engelbrecht farms is estimated at $800,000 alone. The county plans to use inheritance tax money to cover some of the cost, he said, but the county's total annual road budget is about $1 million.

The tour of bridges was held on the same day Gov. Dave Heineman praised Nebraska's highway system, which was ranked second in the nation for overall performance and cost-effectiveness in a report by the Reason Foundation, a think-tank based in Washington, D.C.

Nebraska has ranked No. 2 overall two years in a row, and Nebraska has been in the top 10 for several years. This year, only Wyoming ranked higher overall.

Dubas and Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse joined Otoe County officials on the tour coordinated by the Better Nebraska Association, a group of contractors, engineers, suppliers and the trucking industry.

Spokesman Chris Hawkins said fixing all the rural bridges across the state would cost $1 billion to $2 billion, and that doesn't count bridges less than 20 feet in length.

Keeping Nebraska's highways in good condition is important, Dubas said, but county bridges are vital to rural areas, especially to agriculture and thus to the state's overall economy.

On a stop near the town of Otoe, Nelsen pointed out two bridges that can no longer support the weight of a school bus. Students living on farms north of the bridge have to carpool to another bridge on a main road leading to town, walk across the bridge and then board a school bus, he said.

"It's a commissioner's nightmare to have somebody go over a bridge in poor condition and be killed," Nelsen said. "It's our worst nightmare."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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