Wear

Austin American-Statesman - - COMMUNITY NEWS - Con­tact Ben Wear at 512-445-3698. Twit­ter: @bwear

has been es­sen­tially flat, even as the state’s need for trans­porta­tion has ex­ploded.

That’s why we have so many toll roads now — to meet that need — and also why the Legislature in 2013 and 2015 (backed up by pub­lic votes there­after) voted to re­di­rect some ex­ist­ing taxes (not the gas tax) to the Texas Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion. No new rev­enue there, just shuf­fled deck chairs fis­cally.

But Texas bridges, de­spite the func­tion­ally flat gas tax rev­enue for most of the past decade, have done pretty well.

Ac­cord­ing to the 2017 In­fra­struc­ture Re­port Card, put out by the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Civil En­gi­neers, 9.1 per­cent of the al­most 615,000 bridges in the United States were rated “struc­turally de­fi­cient.” That rank­ing doesn’t mean those bridges are nec­es­sar­ily un­safe to drive on or about to fall down — al­though the Min­nesota bridge that col­lapsed did have that des­ig­na­tion — but that they fail to meet a stan­dard and should be re­paired or re­placed.

That fig­ure has been im­prov­ing na­tion­ally: In 2007, 12.3 per­cent of U.S. bridges were struc­turally de­fi­cient.

Texas has been ahead of the curve through­out the past decade, rank­ing sec­ond-best cur­rently by per­cent­age of struc­turally de­fi­cient bridges in that en­gi­neer so­ci­ety re­port, with 1.7 per­cent. In the worst state, Rhode Is­land, al­most a quar­ter of the bridges were rated struc­turally de­fi­cient in 2016.

And a re­cent TxDOT re­port says the sit­u­a­tion with Texas’ 53,500 bridges is even bet­ter than the na­tional study would in­di­cate. Be­cause traf­fic varies from bridge to bridge, and the newer bridges (in­clud­ing free­way fly­overs) tend to get much heav­ier traf­fic, just 0.5 per­cent of daily traf­fic in Texas drives on a struc­turally de­fi­cient bridge.

The TxDOT re­port says the num­ber of Texas bridges with that rat­ing has de­clined from 2,152 in 2006 to 856 as of last Septem­ber. Of those, 133 are rec­om­mended for clo­sure, but 115 are so-called “off-sys­tem” bridges be­long­ing to cities, coun­ties or pri­vate own­ers rather be­ing part of TxDOT’s state sys­tem of roads.

The depart­ment bud­geted al­most $200 mil­lion in 2016 specif­i­cally for re­plac­ing bridges, part of an on­go­ing com­mit­ment of dol­lars for that pur­pose.

In the 11-county Austin district of TxDOT, nine “on-sys­tem” bridges are struc­turally de­fi­cient, in­clud­ing two in Travis County and one each in Wil­liamson and Bastrop coun­ties, ac­cord­ing to the 2016 TxDOT re­port. Hays County had none with that rat­ing.

But Diann Hodges, a spokes­woman for TxDOT’s Austin district, said three of those bridges have been re­placed, two are closed to traf­fic (on I-35 at East 51st Street) and three have a prob­lem with fre­quent flood­ing rather than hav­ing struc­tural prob­lems.

Only one bridge, on FM 112 in Wil­liamson County, has gen­uine struc­tural de­fects, Hodges said in an email.

At least one prob­lem bridge lo­cally from 2007, when that Min­nesota tragedy oc­curred, is no longer a prob­lem. At the time, TxDOT ac­knowl­edged that the FM 973 bridge over the Colorado River near Hornsby Bend was struc­turally de­fi­cient and had wor­ri­some crack­ing in its un­der­gird­ing.

A wider bridge was built and opened sev­eral months ago.

As for that gas tax thing and the Legislature, well, there’s no bridge strong enough for that one.

RALPH BARRERA / AMER­I­CAN-STATESMAN

A truck tra­verses the re­cently com­pleted bridge on FM 973 north of the Texas 71 in­ter­sec­tion near Austin-Bergstrom In­ter­na­tional Air­port. TxDOT flagged the pre­vi­ous span as struc­turally de­fi­cient a decade ago.

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