Montana’s Bridges Fare Better Than Most States

By Beacon Staff

There are more deficient bridges in the United States than there are McDonald’s, according to Transportation For America spokesperson David Goldberg.

President Barack Obama raised the concern during last month’s State of the Union address, when he called the need to repair the nation’s nearly 70,000 deficient bridges “urgent.”

According to data from Transportation For America, almost 8 percent of Montana’s bridges are deficient, ranking 38th worst among states. But Montana Department of Transportation chief bridge engineer Kent Barnes says that doesn’t mean the bridges are about to fall apart.

“There are a lot of structurally deficient bridges that are safe, but could use some upgrades,” he said. “We’re in a better situation than most (states). I can say that with confidence.”

More than two dozen deficient bridges are located in Northwest Montana, according to MDT. One of the busiest is the U.S. Highway 2 crossing of the South Fork of the Flathead River near Hungry Horse. An average of 6,000 cars cross the bridge daily and that number increases significantly during the summer.

MDT has three criteria to determine if a bridge is deficient: deck condition, super structure condition and substructure condition. The deck or road surface is often in the worse shape.

“The decks take the punishment of wheel loads and rain and snow and water,” he said.

Barnes said the bridge crossing the South Fork, built in 1938, is safe for now but will be replaced in the future. MDT has been studying various improvements to U.S. Highway 2 in that area for the last few years.

The federal gas tax pays for most of the road and bridge repairs in the state and Barnes said Montana often gets more from the tax than it puts in.

Barnes said that MDT has an active bridge inspection program and keeps a close eye on its infrastructure. But both Barnes and Goldberg said more work would be needed in the coming years. According to Goldberg, the average age of a bridge in the United States is 44. The average lifespan of a bridge is 50 years.

“We’re getting to a place where more and more bridges will become defunct,” he said.

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