According to the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD), as of 2011, the state has 574 bridges more than 50 years old, with a quarter of those exceeding 70 years old. By 2021, the number of bridges exceeding 50 years old will be 1,096—almost double the current number.
In a report from the Federal Highway Administration, in 2010 the state had a total of 4,132 bridges, with 414 of those deemed deficient.
With that background on the age and condition of bridges in Idaho, on Thursday ITD made a presentation to a joint meeting of the House and Senate Transportation Committees on road and bridge issues throughout the state, budget expectations and general information for the coming fiscal year.
ITD chief deputy Scott Stokes said that “perpetually replacing bridges at our current rate, we are facing bridges having to last 120 years each.” Because of this, Stokes said that the state may soon have to move funds away from pavement projects and use those funds for bridges.
This could put the state between a rock and hard place, according to Brian Ness, ITD director. He has been director of the agency since January 2010, coming to Idaho from Michigan.
Ness explained that 13 percent of pavements across the state are currently deficient, with that number expected to rise to 28 percent—at the current funding levels—by 2021.
During the presentation, Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, pressed Ness on the bridge issue, saying, “The only thing I heard about what you may plan to do to repair critical bridges is to divert some of the pavement money.”
Ness said that, “we have to work with the money that we have.” He said it’s obvious in the various reports that Idaho’s bridges are becoming increasingly in need of work, with funding the major variable. He used an example of a $10 million project. For a road, that money can rebuild or maintain a significant number of lanes. In contrast, with the same amount of money, the state may only be able to do one decent-sized bridge.
“We’ve been focusing our money on where it would extend us out to do the most good,” he said. “But eventually, we’ve got to address that issue with bridges. So, I think we’ll be looking at, based on our management systems, what is the right number. How much can you afford to let the pavements continue to deteriorate so you can start focusing on doing something with the bridges?”
In a recent interview with IdahoReporter.com, Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, head of the Senate Transportation Committee, also expressed concerns about infrastructure needs in Idaho, particularly with bridges.
Ness agrees with Hammond about the need to do something about bridges in the state. Testified Ness: “When you look at what you’re up against, the bridges are very, very critical. For us to ask those bridges to last 120 years, that could become a fairly dangerous situation, as they saw a few years ago in the city on Minneapolis (where an older interstate structure collapsed). And, we don’t want that to happen on our system. So, we’re really focusing on the condition of the bridges and what we need to do to start accelerating the construction of those.”
Work on bridges, noted Ness, could come at the expense of road projects. “When you do that (focus on bridges), the taxpayers are going to have to realize they’re not going to see a lot of construction on roadways like they’re used to, but those dollars are going to be concentrated on very small areas where we’re rebuilding those bridges.”
To combat the funding issue, the idea of toll roads and bridges occasionally springs up. According to Stokes, the research he has seen by the department shows that logistically it isn’t viable. Using the stretch of interstate between Caldwell and Boise as an example, Stokes said, “We have some fairly decent traffic numbers out there, but it’s so short to set up tolls and booths. You know, if you have that traffic volume and a 50- or 100-mile stretch of road … to try and do it on a really small, localized scale, it’s really hard to make it work.”
Current data aside, several decades ago Idaho did have a major toll bridge. One of the most famous landmarks in Idaho is the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls. It was built by the state in 1976 at a cost of $9.7 million. But from 1927 until 1940 crossing the Snake River at that point came over a toll bridge called Twin Falls-Jerome Intercounty Bridge, a privately-built bridge that cost $650,000 to construct. The state purchased the bridge in 1940 and eliminated the toll.