Local News

Are Highlands County bridges safe?

SEBRING - Although the short Rucks Dairy Bridge only accommodates one lane of traffic, travelers probably won't experience a traffic jam trying to cross it. The bridge, near the borders that separate Highlands, Okeechobee and Glades counties, connects lonely stretches of road where several houses dot the landscape. Though the bridge is in Highlands County, county officials believe that mostly Glades County residents use it because there's no other suitable route to Highway 70. While the bridge serves few Highlands County residents, it stands out in one respect. Out of 60 bridges in Highlands County, it's the only structurally deficient bridge in the county, said Debbie Tower, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation.
That doesn't mean the bridge is unsafe - if that were the case it would be closed immediately - but that it should be replaced during the next several years, Tower said. With only one structurally deficient bridge in the county, Kyle Green, road and bridge superintendent for Highlands County, voices confidence that travelers don't have to fear a bridge collapse locally. "Our bridges are in good condition overall," he said. And, generally, studies rank Florida higher than most states in terms of safe bridges. Earlier this year, bridge safety became a national topic when the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River near Seattle collapsed. A CNN report states that the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the United States a C+ rating overall on bridges, noting that 600 bridges have failed since 1989. The report states that the Federal Highway Administration estimates that the cost of repairing all bridges would be $76 billion, but that people are unwilling to pay higher taxes to generate that revenue. A 2013 report card on America's Infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers gives Florida a B grade in bridges, which is higher than what it awards the state in most other infrastructure areas, such as in roads where the state gets a C grade. The report notes that 262 of 11,982 bridges, or 2.2 percent of Florida bridges, are considered structurally deficient. The state received $91.3 million from the Federal Highway Bridge fund in fiscal year 2011, the report noted. "Bridges are extremely expensive," Green said. He anticipates that design on replacing the Rucks Dairy Road Bridge could begin within the next year and that it's possible work on replacing it could commence in the 2016-2017 fiscal year. Replacing the bridge will cost nearly $1.8 million, in addition to $270,000 in design costs, he said. The only other major state bridge project in Highlands County scheduled anytime in the near future involves maintenance on the U.S. 98 bridge over the Kissimmee River, but that won't happen for several years, Tower said. Highlands County has plans to do some maintenance at the Highway 621 over Stone Creek and the Skipper Road Bridge, Green said. But that work won't actually involve the bridges, but instead the streambed and dealing with erosion. "There is nothing wrong with the structural integrity of the bridges," he said. Highlands County receives a lot of information about bridges from the state, which inspects both state and county bridges at least once every two years. "There are some bridges we inspect more frequently than every two years," said Greg Deese, structures management engineer for the Florida Department of Transportation. Deese said six bridges in Highlands County get more attention. But, he said, disclosure of the locations of those bridges is exempted under Florida's open records law. He said exemptions for some information on bridges were enacted following the terrorist attacks in Sept. 11, 2001. For most bridges, an inspection takes about four hours, Deese said. In cases of major bridges, such as the Sunshine Skyway, "obviously the bridge would take much longer to inspect," he said. An inspection of the Sunshine Skyway would take months, he added Generally, bridge inspections are visual, he said, adding that inspectors look at the top of the deck, the columns below, underneath the concrete or the steel, Deese said. Inspectors look for anything different from the previous inspections, he said. Tests other than visual might include tapping a hammer on the concrete, which gives an idea of the condition of the concrete, Deese said. Deese said ultrasonic devices can help measure the thickness of steel and radar devices "can give us an idea of what goes on internally." Bridges in Florida are rated according to sufficiency and health, Tower said. But a low rating in either category doesn't mean that the bridge is unsafe or about to collapse, she said. Tower said a low rating in the health category may indicate the need for some maintenance. A low rating in the sufficiency could simply indicate that the bridge wasn't built under today's design standards, she said. Despite that, the bridge may be holding up quite well, she said, adding that the same is true with bridges declared functionally obsolete. In Highlands County, the bridge with the lowest sufficiency rating is the Rucks Dairy Road bridge with a score of 33.7. The U.S. 98 bridge over the Cornwall canal has the lowest health rating of 56.69. Bridges reconstructed over the last several decades include the State Road 66 bridge over Wolf Creek in 1984, the State Road 70 bridge over Harney Pond Canal in 2000, the U.S. 27 north and south bridges over Josephine Creek in 2000, the County Road 621 bridge over C-41 canal in 2000, the U.S. 98 bridge over the Kissimmee River in 1966, the State Road 66 bridge over Little Charlie Bowlegs in 1984, the U.S. 27 North bridge over Lake Anoka in 2002 and the State Road 70 bridge over Fisheating Creek Slough in 1988. Tower said that bridges can last many years. That's evident with the U.S. 27 southbound bridge over Josephine Creek. It was constructed in 1944. "We have older bridges that are still in service and are serving us quite well," Tower said. jmeisel@highlandstoday.com (863) 386-5834. .