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Bad bridge

This bridge on 168th Street south of Waverly Road was closed for six weeks because it took nearly that long to find the right steel plating to fix it.

The state needs to kick in more money to help fix or replace thousands of rural bridges that are in disrepair, a legislative committee says in a report released Friday.

Some 3,500 Nebraska bridges aren't up to snuff, and nearly a thousand of those are described as "functionally obsolete," according to state Department of Roads data cited in the report by the Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. Those figures don't include bridges less than 20 feet long, which are certain to number in the tens of thousands.

Fixing the longer bridges alone would cost $1 billion to $2 billion, a spokesman for a group lobbying for more bridge money said in September. That group, called Better Nebraska Association, includes contractors, engineers, suppliers and the trucking industry.

"It's this whole idea of deferred maintenance. ... Our infrastructure is just getting old," said Sen. Galen Hadley, chairman of the Legislature's Revenue Committee and a candidate for speaker. "We're going to have to spend a lot of time prioritizing."

Money for repairs could come from restoring state aid to counties, raising the gas tax, or pulling dollars from the state's general fund or cash reserve, according to lobbyists and lawmakers. County governments also have some wiggle room.

A recent report by the Revenue Committee found that very few counties in the state levy property taxes to even near the extent possible under state law, which caps county rates at 50 cents per $100 of valuation.

"The ability is there, but is the will there?" Hadley said. "Property taxes are just a lightning rod."

Then there's the gas tax. If it weren't labeled as such, drivers might not even notice a couple of cents' increase.

"I can drive from one end of Lincoln to the other and maybe see 3, 4, 5, cents difference" in gas prices, said Larry Dix, executive director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials, which is also pushing for more bridge funding.

Gas prices can swing 10 cents or more in a day, Hadley said. "But you talk about raising gas taxes, for example, a cent or two ... people just really get very upset about it."

It's an interesting collision of issues for farmers, ranchers and truckers, who are among the most frequent users of the decaying bridges but also likely to foot much of the bill from increased gas taxes, county wheel taxes or property taxes — an issue of particular grief for agricultural land owners.

Closed or worn bridges make for long drives in rural areas where crossings are rare, especially those wide and sturdy enough for harvesters and combines.

"Some people go 12, 10, you know, 10 miles out of their way to get around to the other side," Steve Mika, highway superintendent in Saunders County, told Transportation Committee members during a recent hearing. "I know it's changed a lot of farming operations."

The bridges also can be unsafe for other travelers.

Last year, the wheel of a Malcolm school bus dropped through the wood deck of a bridge on Northwest 19th Street near West Branched Oak Road, and the bus got stuck.

"It's not good when something like that happens," said Pam Dingman, Lancaster County engineer. 

Eighty of the county's 297 bridges are more than 50 years old — their recommended lifespan — and several have been up since the 1930s, Dingman said.

The state funnels a few million dollars in federal funds to counties each year for bridge work, and for the past two years, Lancaster County's allotment has been $80,000.

As a result, the county didn't replace any bridges last year and won't be doing so this year, either, Dingman said.

For example, a bridge built in the 1950s on 98th Street just north of U.S. 6 would have cost about $1.8 million to replace. Instead, it's being fixed.

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"It's kind of like putting a transmission in your car that has 150,000 miles," Dingman said.

Sometimes, even finding replacement parts isn't easy.

A bridge the county bought in 1932, on 168th Street south of Waverly Road, was closed for six weeks because it took nearly that long to find the right steel plating. Luckily, county workers tracked down a manufacturer in Kentucky who had some in his yard.

"That was a lot of phone calls and a lot of searching," Dingman said.

Other states are having similar problems. The CBS show "60 Minutes" aired a report on the topic last month titled "Falling apart: America's neglected infrastructure." Other national media have addressed the issue as well.

"Nebraska is not unique in this area," said Dix, with the county officials group. "The difficulty is, no one wants to raise a tax."

Since 1961, when President John F. Kennedy pushed a 4 cent federal gas tax to help maintain the nation's highway program, gas prices have increased by more than $2 a gallon but the tax hasn't even kept up with inflation.

That 4 cents per gallon should be 31 cents in 2014 dollars, adjusted for inflation, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. Instead, the tax is 18 cents per gallon.

"Certainly we've identified the problem," Dix said. "The difficulty is in the solution."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com. On Twitter @zachami.

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Assistant city editor

Zach Pluhacek is an assistant city editor.

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