The bridges of Rutherford County

They are not falling down
Jun. 14, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

When driving across one of the many bridges in Rutherford County, most may not consider things like load-weight restrictions, structural integrity or structure rating.

But, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) is looking at those factors when it comes to bridges.

In data compiled from state information, Rutherford County has 269 bridges. Of those, 15 were built prior to World War II. The oldest bridge in the county is the Lake Lure/Broad River bridge which was constructed in 1920. Of the remaining 14, half were built prior to 1926.

"When these bridges were built in the 20s and 30s it was built to get farmers to market," said Paul Sprouse, bridge project manager for NCDOT's Division 13 — which covers Rutherford County. "So, there were a lot of small creek bridges that were built because they didn't need a lot of space."

Other, more striking figures are that 30 percent of all bridges in the county have been rated as being structurally deficient and another 30 percent are functionally obsolete. Twenty nine bridges in the county are both deficient and obsolete.

According to NCDOT structurally deficient means that while the bridge remains safe, it requires repairs and was built to design standards no longer used for bridges. A bridge is considered structurally deficient if it is in relatively poor condition, or has insufficient load-carrying capacity.

Functionally obsolete means the bridge is safe but needs to be replaced to meet current and future traffic demands. A bridge is considered to be functionally obsolete if it is too narrow, has inadequate under-clearances, has insufficient load-carrying capacity, is poorly aligned with the roadway and can no longer adequately service today's traffic.

"The inspection reports will tell you all sorts of things regarding the bridges. When you are looking at a functionally obsolete bridge, it has run its course," Sprouse said. "The wagons from back in the 30s and 40s are a lot different from the 18-wheelers we have today. Structurally deficient means they are not meant to carry current load weights."

Despite having a good number of bridges in Rutherford County that fall under either category, Sprouse said there is no need to worry just yet.

"They are not going to fall down," Sprouse said. "None of the bridges in the state are not at that point yet. The federal government requires we inspect every two years.

"Just because it was built in the 20s or 30s doesn't mean it is a bad bridge. They used their resources very wisely."

And, he said the state is attempting to make some headway in reinforcing or replacing outdated bridges. According to NCDOT, there are 17 bridges in the county on the project listing to be done. The projects range from overlay to complete replacement.

Across the state, the American Society of Civil Engineers rated North Carolina's approximately 15,000 bridges with a grade of C-. Its roads received a grade of D-. Just over 12 percent of all bridges in the state were rated as being structurally deficient while 18 percent were functionally obsolete.

Nearby Buncombe County has the highest number of substandard bridges in the state at 218, according to rankings released by AAA Carolinas. That report included two bridges in Buncombe County that were among the 20 worst in the state.

Some point to state funding for infrastructure as being a primary reason why the state's bridges are inadequate.

"Inadequate funding for road and bridge maintenance over the past decade means we still have a significant number of substandard bridges in North Carolina," said David Parsons, president of AAA Carolinas, in a statement. "We need to find new sources of funding for our state's Department of Transportation."

Sprouse said the state is taking steps to address older bridges.

"Legislators have decided that bridges in North Carolina need love and care and have allocated tons of money for that," Sprouse said. "They are trying to spread it across the state but Division 13 and 14 got the lion's share of the money in the hopes that we can get rid of some of these deficient bridges."

He said the state plans to allocate approximately $20 million for bridge repair for Division 13 and $18 million for adjoining Division 14 in western North Carolina. This will come from a pot of $180 million for the entire state.

If the figures hold under General Assembly scrutiny, Sprouse said the next step will be to continue bridge evaluation in the division and begin work on repairing or replacing bridges that don't meet standards.

"We look at what the numbers on the bridges are and they have a certain weight to them," Sprouse said. "Combined with other things such as rating and the amount of traffic will go into consideration when we start that process."

But, with a vast amount of bridges to look at, that process will take time.

"For the last 5 or 6 years, the state has started to put a lot of money into infrastructure," Sprouse said. "We are trying to get that infrastructure back up and running. We're doing the best we can with what we have to work with."