Continuous job to keep bridges safe

News Photo by Jordan Spence The Bagley Street bridge has about 18,000 cars per day travel across it.

On Aug. 1, 2007, a bridge on I-35 crossing the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minn., collapsed during the evening rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145. Following the fatal collapse, bridges around the country, including those in Northeast Michigan, drew scrutiny about their safety.

Now, more than 15 years later, area road commissions keep up a maintenance regimen to keep drivers safe and ensure bridges throughout the area are in good shape.

Alpena County Road Commission Superintendent Larry Orcutt said there are 21 bridges in the jurisdiction and he thinks overall they’re in fair condition.

“Recently we have upped our preventative maintenance and we have plans again this year through our budgeting process,” he said.

With any structure, he said, maintenance is required to keep infrastructure in workable condition.

“Many bridges, some have steel beams holding them underneath, which can have rust and corrosion. Some are concrete; concrete deteriorates over time. Most of the decks are concrete. So in those respects it does take maintenance to keep them in good condition. Some have a asphalt layer in some cases it’s about working that layer of asphalt,” he said.

Twice a year the road commission has licensed engineers examine the bridges to make repair recommendations.

The Michigan Department of Transportation budgets about $39 million per year for the statewide local bridge program. The funds can be used for replacement, rehabilitation or preventive maintenance. The north region was allocated approximately $4.6 million for local bridges for 2020 projects.

“We were approved for $867,000 for the Ossineke Road bridge,” Orcutt said.

The Ossineke Road bridge is built over Devils River and this bridge will be replaced, Orcutt said.

The Werth Road bridge is located at Mud Creek and was built in 1938. He said with this bridge not much has been done other than new guardrails and the couple of times the deck was sealed.

“The Werth Road bridge does have steel beams underneath deteriorating, so that particular bridge we’ve been applying for funds since the early ’90s,” Orcutt said. “Just now made it up on the list to receive bridge award funding. There is a lot of competition because it’s all of $3-4 million dollars.”

The biggest challenge for Alpena County is the Bagley Street bridge. He said the traffic for the bridge plays the biggest factor into conditions. He said the road commission has counted about 18,000 cars a day travel across the bridge. He said there is also a lot of non -motorized traffic with bicycles and pedestrians.

This was built in 1976 and at the time Bagley Street didn’t exist. The road commission built the bridge across the river. The design of the structure was based on the projected needs.

He said because of the large number of pedestrians and non-motorized traffic the road commission would like to build a trail crossing.

“Our newest concept is to rehab the bridge. This would be removing the deck, replacing abutments, putting non-motorized pathways on both sides of the structure so there’s a safe way to walk. There are several bike paths that tie into Bagley, and the subdivisions and schools to south. When the weather is decent there are a lot of kids on bikes going to school,” Orcutt said.

It’s been a struggle on that bridge for a while, he said.

“The challenge with all of these is the funding that is necessary to improve them. The Werth Road one is $957,000. Bagley Street rehab is estimated at $6.3 million excluding engineering,” Orcutt said.

Orcutt said there is a system where larger projects are kicked out into a large bridge category, but then this means they compete against all of Michigan in the large bridge fund.

“You compete with more urban areas downstate. We’ve looked at other options. We’ve looked at combine several types of grants to lower that request out of the bridge funding. So far I have commitment thought Transportation Alternative Program which is for non-motorized facilities for over $1 million,” he said.

Competition with downstate for infrastructure funds does become a problem for Presque Isle Road Commission Manager Jerry Smigelski.

“The farther north you go, we’re way at the bottom of the list,” Smigelski said.

Presque Isle County has 27 bridges controlled and maintained by the road commission, he said.

“We have an additional two we are adding on. They were larger culverts that will become bridges,” he said.

The first one is located on Bolton Road. The road commission started the work last fall and it will finish this spring. This is projected to cost $275,000.

“The other is on East 638 Highway by Grand Lake, between US-23 and Highland Pines and it goes over the Grand Lake outlet,” Smigelski said.

This is estimated to cost $750,000.

He said in order something to be classified as a bridge it has to be 20 feet or larger.

Like Alpena County, Presque Isle bridges are inspected every two years. One has been closed, Smigelski said. It’s a small structure on Little Trout Road, which is a two track that is rarely used, he said.

The second bridge that needs work is has a weight restriction of seven tons.

“We’ve had this one our list for a while,” Smigelski said. “We submitted an application for funding for the past 10 years. This one is located on Schubert Highway between US-23 and Schubert Road near Long Lake. That will be going in for another application due by May 1.”

The biggest issue, he said, is when repairs aren’t done.

“Every year you delay doing anything. The cost to repair to replace keeps going up higher and higher. I estimated the needs of the Presque Isle Road Commision at $30 to $40 million. With the gravel and paved roads and the bridges we have. It’s very expensive,” he said. “In a 2015 needs study that had to deal with county roads, I estimated we have roughly 230 miles that need work at $33 million. That’s excluding the bridges. You could add another few million on bridges for the ones that need to be replaced.

He said the new funding from the state has helped but repairs add up fast and they’ve been neglected for too long.

“I just read yesterday that they’re looking into putting more money into the general fund for the state. We won’t see any of that until the new fiscal year starts in October. The president has talked about putting in additional money into infrastructure and I think if that would happen that would be wonderful. The farther north you go we’re way at the bottom of the list. We look at a number of ways for additional money to do some of these projects. Overall our bridges in our county in pretty good shape,” Smigelski said.

Jordan Spence can be reached via email at or by phone at 358-5687.

Number of bridges in the area

Alpena County: 21

Presque Isle County: 27

Montmorency County: 8

Cheboygan County: 31

Huron County: 169

Source: The County Road Association of Michigan