The shuttered Missouri 291 bridge over the Missouri River at Sugar Creek could reopen in about three weeks, officials say.
But the future of approximately 600 other problem bridges across the state remains unclear. Dwindling funding has prompted dire warnings during the past several months regarding the health of Missouri roads and bridges, state officials said.
State inspectors ordered the Sugar Creek bridge closed May 6 after discovering corrosion that threatened the integrity of the bridge’s trusses. Workers have addressed the worst of those issues, said Brian Kidwell, Kansas City region assistant district engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation.
But similar unscheduled shutdowns remain possible for hundreds of other spans that need monitoring, Kidwell said, and the number could increase as MoDOT’s construction and repair budget continues to shrink.
“So much of our bridge system is crossing over into a very high maintenance age just at the same time that our funding is continuing to drop,” Kidwell said. “It’s going to be a problem.”
In 2014, MoDOT received about $700 million for construction and maintenance. In 2017, the amount is expected to drop to about $325 million.
Meanwhile, the number of problem bridges is expected to grow to as many as 1,500 during the next 10 years.
The Sugar Creek closing marks one of nine unplanned bridge closings across the state since January 2014. Another one of those, the ramp from eastbound Interstate 70 to southbound Interstate 35 in the northwest corner of the downtown Kansas City loop, closed in April. It may reopen about June 1.
One day after the Sugar Creek bridge closed, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon stood in nearby LaBenite Park and plugged an increase in the state’s fuel tax. The proposal would have raised the tax on diesel fuel by 3.5 cents and on other fuels by 1.5 cents and would have generated just more than $54 million a year. That would have kept Missouri from losing $160 million in matching federal transportation money.
“I just happen to be here today, but I could be in a lot of other places in the state,” Nixon said, referring to Missouri’s many problem bridges.
But the legislative session recently ended without approval of the tax.
Federal law requires state workers to inspect bridges regularly.
“I think it’s a positive thing that the state is out doing its inspections and trying to protect motorist safety,” said Sugar Creek City Administrator Ron Martinovich.
Since May 6, traffic on Missouri 291 has narrowed to one lane in each direction to cross the newer of the two bridges over the Missouri River. The newer bridge usually carries only southbound traffic, while the older one carries northbound motorists. Approximately 22,000 motorists cross the river there daily.
The older bridge, which opened in 1949, has been shut before. In 2009, state inspectors closed it because of advanced corrosion in critical locations.
Inspectors consider the current shut-down an opportunity to address other issues.
“The bridge is so old and has so many additional defects and deteriorations,” Kidwell said. “Right now we are trying to analyze and estimate what is likely to present itself over the next four or five years, and then go back and make those repairs.”
He added, “We hope we can avoid having to do this again in six months, one year or two years. It is so impactful to make an emergency closing out there, with live traffic.
“We want to maximize the time we can go before we have to do that again.”
Often, as bridges age, their issues grow more complex and maintenance issues accelerate, he said. As recently as two years ago, Kidwell said, the east Sugar Creek bridge was in satisfactory shape for its age.
But that condition didn’t last.
“This bridge went from OK to closed in a very short time,” Kidwell said.
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