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DOT wants more money for bridges

State transportation officials are recommending higher annual spending to stem the rate of bridges degrading into the “structurally deficient” category every year in North Carolina.

It’s happening at a fast clip, said Greg Perfetti, director of field support at the state Department of Transportation. Perfetti told legislators last week that a better maintenance regimen is vital to stave off exponentially higher costs later.

“I guess you could say this is my save-the-whales spiel,” Perfetti told the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee while describing how bridge preservation needs are outrunning efforts.

In 2014, at least 220 bridges have become structurally deficient, meaning in relatively poor condition or with insufficient load-carrying capacity. He recommended amending the state’s bridge program to allow it to fund the care of structurally sound crossings, as well as the improvement of the ailing or functionally obsolete bridges currently covered in the program.

The bridge program now is funded at $160 million annually. To maintain a 16 percent structurally deficient rate in the state’s bridge system would mean a $200 million program. Taking it a step further and keeping sound bridges in fine health would require another $60 million a year, according to the DOT presentation Friday. Those expenses are against massive replacement costs for bridges that reach the point of no return.

According to DOT, replacing the 55-year-old Fairview Road bridge over Capital Boulevard in Wake County would cost an estimated $3.7 million. The actual recent cost to rehabilitate it and add 30 to 40 years to its life was $675,000.

An estimated 250 bridges are becoming “structurally deficient” in North Carolina every year. “Until we can get to the point where we’ve overcome what we add each year – 250 – and chip away at that backlog, we’re not going to make significant progress,” Perfetti said.

Costs to fix structurally deficient bridges vary tremendously county by county, from $2 million in Gates County to $517.5 million in Dare County, home of the Bonner Bridge replacement project. Wake County is looking at $127.5 million in fixes; Forsyth County’s estimate is $250 million; Mecklenburg County’s is $68.1 million.

Rep. John Torbett, a Republican from Stanley in Gaston County, said there was a $13.1 million need in his county. He said the DOT’s recommendation is a good starting point.

“What I’m trying to get them to do is get an end. I want an end game,” said Torbett, who is co-chairman of the joint transportation committee. “I want to make sure we’re addressing bridges now so this is not a perpetual effort.”

According to a list of poor bridges compiled by AAA Carolinas earlier this year, the state’s worst was Guilford County’s 60-year-old South Buffalo Creek crossing. It’s slated for replacement in 2019.

Benjamin Brown writes for NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer.

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