'Nothing is more urgent': Central Iowa counties struggle to maintain failing rural bridges

Teresa Kay Albertson
Des Moines Register

The central Iowa counties of Dallas, Warren and Story own and manage 480 bridges. Of those, 17 are closed and at least 47 more are identified with poor structural integrity.

And that number is growing.

"It's going to continue to get worse," according to Story County Engineer Darren Moon. "We have 100 bridges that are posted for load ratings. As long as people abide by those posting, the bridges will be safe."

The last bridge collapse in Iowa was in 2017 when a truck more than 10 times the weight limit of a rural bridge in Winneshiek County tried to cross. The wooden bridge spanning the Upper Iowa River on Cattle Creek Road buckled under the weight.

Iowa's ranking as worst in the nation for safe bridges filters down to counties

According to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association in February, nearly 224,000 U.S. bridges need repair. Placed end-to-end, they would stretch from Los Angeles to Maine and back again.

Of those, 43,600 bridges are “structurally deficient” and in poor condition. Motorists cross these structures 167.5 million times a day.

For more than five years, Iowa has been sitting at the bottom of the country's metrics when it comes to safe bridges. 

Iowa has 4,504 bridges in poor condition. Pennsylvania has 3,198 and Illinois has 2,405. States with the most bridges in poor condition as a percentage of their total bridge inventory are West Virginia, 20%; Iowa, 19%; Rhode Island, 17.5%.

In a time when big bridge failures and collapses draw headlines, rural county bridges rarely make the news. But counties play a significant role in the management and safety of bridges. And some of them are struggling to make ends meet.

According to the National Association of Counties, 38% of the bridges in the country, and 44% of the public roads, are owned and managed by counties. 

This bridge on Ken Meril Road south of Ames in rural Story County is closed due to age and failing structural integrity. Story County has a total of 270 bridges. Eight of them are closed. Story County Engineer Darren Moon said that six more bridges will likely be closed in the near future due to age and failing structural integrity.

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But some data shows progress is being made

Warren County Secondary Roads Operations Manager Brian Konrad describes rural bridge safety as "a slow-burning problem."

"We have gained a lot (of ground) in the 24 years I've been working for the county," Konrad said. "From either replacing bridges with new structures or rehabbing older structures to bring them up to more of a legal rating, or as close to a legal rating as we can get, it's getting better."

Data from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association supports Konrad's gut feeling. The 2022 report released in February says 4,504 bridges in Iowa, 18.9%, are classified as structurally deficient. That is down from 4,805 bridges classified as structurally deficient in 2017. 

This bridge on West 190th Street north of Ames in rural Story County is closed due to age and failing structural integrity. Story County has a total of 270 bridges. Eight of them are closed. Story County Engineer Darren Moon said that six more bridges will likely be closed in the near future due to age and failing structural integrity.

But the report also says at this rate it will take 30 years to make all existing bridges safe. Meanwhile, other bridges will continue to deteriorate.

Warren County has 180 bridges. Six are closed and four more are rated as structurally poor. 

Story County has 194 bridges. Eight are closed and 35 are rated as poor. 

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Dallas County has 106 bridges. Three are closed and another eight are rated as poor. 

Polk County doesn't have any bridges that are closed or rated as poor. The county has 138 bridges.

Federal standards define bridges as a span of 20 feet or more. Smaller bridges are not included in the statistics above. For example, Story County owns and manages another 76 bridges that are less than 20 feet long.

A vehicle travels under the Birdland Park Drive bridge in Des Moines on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2022, as parts of the bridge appear to be in disrepair.

When managing county bridges, as the structural integrity declines, county engineers decrease the weight limit of a bridge. If a bridge has low traffic counts and cannot be repaired or replaced due to structural or financial limitations, it might be closed by the county engineer. However, county engineers also pay attention to keeping access open for homeowners and farmers.

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Future for Iowa bridges

In 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The act includes $110 billion in new spending for roads, bridges and major projects.

From 2022-27, Iowa will receive $467 million for bridges alone. But the American Road & Transportation Builders Association estimates Iowa needs a minimum of $3.5 billion to repair at least 15,135 bridges.

This bridge on West 190th Street north of Ames in rural Story County is closed due to age and failing structural integrity. Story County has a total of 270 bridges. Eight of them are closed. Story County Engineer Darren Moon said that six more bridges will likely be closed in the near future due to age and failing structural integrity.

"I don't see the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act helping us get more bridges replaced," Story County's Moon said. "There was an increase in funding. But unfortunately, the Iowa Department of Transportation is saying that we are seeing bridge construction prices increase around 30% this year. So that will use up the increase in funding."

And when it comes to county roadway management, Moon said the needs are clear.

"Nothing is more urgent than bridges," he said.

Both Moon and Warren County's secondary road management team said the one thing needed to address Iowa's bridges is the one thing that they aren't getting.

Money.

Despite expecting a $2 billion surplus to Iowa's state budget and the new federal money, county engineers don't see a quick solution for Iowa's aging bridge infrastructure.

Warren County Engineer David Carroll is clear about what Iowa needs to do if the state wants to provide safe roadways to the public.

"The state's fuel tax is the only direct funding source for roadway infrastructure," Carroll said. "The last time it was raised was in 2015. And before then it didn't increase for decades."

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The state's current gas tax that drivers pay at the gas pump is 30 cents per gallon.

In the 1980s, when Republican Terry Branstad was governor and the Democrats controlled the Iowa Legislature, the gas tax was raised seven times from 13 cents per gallon to 20 cents.

The Iowa gas tax was unchanged in the 1990s when Branstad was governor and legislative control was either split between Democrats and Republicans, or the control flipped between the two for several years.

From 2001-08 when Democrats Chet Culver and Tom Vilsack were governor with a mostly Republican Legislature, the gas tax increased eight times by a tiny fraction each time from 20.1 cents per gallon to 21 cents per gallon.

This bridge on 597th Ave. east of Cambridge in rural Story County is closed due to age and failing structural integrity. Story County has a total of 270 bridges. Eight of them are closed. Story County Engineer Darren Moon said that six more bridges will likely be closed in the near future due to age and failing structural integrity.

The gas tax didn't change again until 2015, when Branstad was again governor, the Iowa Senate was Democratic and the Iowa House was Republican. The gasoline tax jumped from 21 cents per gallon to 31 cents. 

Between 2016-22, the gas tax decreased to 30 cents per gallon with mostly Republicans in control of the governor's office, the Iowa Senate and the Iowa House.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor and Statistics, if the gas tax had kept up with inflation from 1980 to 2022, the current gas tax would be 50 cents per gallon. In the 1950s, when the national interstate highways were being constructed, Iowa's gas tax was 5 cents per gallon. In today's dollars that would equal 56 cents per gallon.

"The one thing we need to fix this problem is more money," Moon said. "But higher taxes aren't popular. But that's what it will take to maintain our system."

Teresa Kay Albertson covers crime, courts and local government in Ames and central Iowa for the Ames Tribune and Des Moines Register. Reach her at talbertson@registermedia.com or 515-419-6098.