Arkansas’ perpetual struggle to repair and replace its aged and ailing bridges is paying small dividends.
Two notable improvements are the new $98.4 million Broadway Bridge across the Arkansas River reconnecting Little Rock with North Little Rock this week, and the $39.2 million Black River Bridge that opened in Lawrence County in 2015.
The American Road & Transportation Builders Association released its annual report on bridge data collected by the Federal Highway Administration. Arkansas improved a bit, but still sits solidly in 25th place nationally, ranked by the number of structurally deficient bridges. That number is 811.
A year ago, Arkansas had 845 structurally deficient bridges, and 861 in 2014, so the number is going in the right direction. Arkansas has been ranked 25th for three consecutive years.
By percentage, Arkansas is 34th nationally with 6.3 percent of its 12,871 bridges rated as structurally deficient. A year ago, Arkansas ranked 36th with 6.6 percent of its 12,853 bridges.
To clarify, a bridge is considered “structurally deficient” if one of its three areas — deck, superstructure or substructure — gets a substandard rating.
The ATRBA also released other statistics on Arkansas bridges: 2,004 bridges are functionally obsolete, which is a mean way of saying they are of out-of-date design; and 1,477 bridges have restrictions on the weight of vehicles that can use the bridge.
The eight most-traveled bridges considered structurally deficient are all in Pulaski County and the youngest of the batch was built in 1977.
The bridge on Locust Street in North Little Rock, which traverses Union Pacific railroad tracks, was built in 1936 and gets an estimated 123,000 vehicles daily, as does the nearby Interstate 30 bridge over the Arkansas River that was built in 1961.
Arkansas’ statistics are at least better than the national average.
The ARTBA said 55,710 of the nation’s 612,079 bridges are structurally deficient, which works out to 9.1 percent.
In 2015 there were 58,495, or 9.6 percent.
Mike Hill knows Arkansas bridges perhaps better than anyone else in the state through his position as heavy bridge maintenance engineer for the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department.
He and his crew inspect the state’s (now) 12,871 bridges every two years, with troubled bridges getting more frequent visits.
The old Broadway Bridge was a pain in the neck and budget for Arkansas, and it was inspected twice a year. In the year before its demolition, chunks of concrete as large as bowling balls were falling from the superstructure which, you have to admit, would be a pretty good reason to consider taking another bridge to work.
Still, even with all that decrepitude, we all remember how long the ol’ gal stood after the demolition blasts in September.
“I was at the Broadway Bridge with my superintendent [Raymond Parker] and he said, ‘I’m so glad that old bridge is gone,’” Hill said. “It had a lot of problems. We worked on it every single year.”
Arkansas bridge crews have little choice but to patch up bridges rather than replace them. There’s just not enough money in the budget to properly replace old bridges, so Hill and his crew patch what they can and try to keep as many bridges in working condition as they can.
“We need to build some new ones and take care of what we have,” Hill said. “Everyone wants a bypass to get traffic out of town. All that stuff costs money.”
According to the ATRBA, Arkansas needs to replace 1,821 bridges at a cost of $2.3 billion and another 623 bridges are in need of $307 million in repairs. The total for all work that needs to be done on Arkansas’ bridges amounts to roundabout $3 billion.
Even if all that money fell from the sky into Arkansas’ budget, it’s not a simple case of writing a check to have the bridges built or repaired. The recession drove many construction workers into other lines of work, and environmental and other regulations make for painstaking planning.
“You’d have to do it carefully,” Hill said. “You couldn’t get everything done if you don’t have enough workers. But we could do some good work with the money.”