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North Dakota lags behind Minnesota in addressing aging bridges

Sam Gerbracht has seen a significant decline of business to her Neilsville, Minn., bar after a historic bridge west of town on the Red River was closed three years ago. photo by Eric Hylden/ Forum News Service

NIELSVILLE, Minn.—Sam Gerbracht never imagined the success of her Nielsville bar would depend on a bridge—but three years after the 79-year-old bridge that connects Nielsville to North Dakota closed, the bar's business has decreased significantly.

She said the bar makes about $60,000 less per year since the bridge closed because it is less accessible to neighboring North Dakota customers.

A gaping hole in the bridge's surface spurred a funding feud between Minnesota and North Dakota that highlights a significant difference in bridge upkeep between the states.

A significantly higher percentage of bridges on the North Dakota side of the Red River are classified as structurally deficient, or in need of repairs, as those on the Minnesota side, data from the 2017 National Bridge Inventory shows.

Les Noehre of the North Dakota Department of Transportation said the term "structurally deficient" doesn't necessarily mean the bridge is unsafe. He said it's more like getting the oil changed in a car: "It just needs a little maintenance."

One in four Traill County bridges in North Dakota are classified as structurally deficient, but on the Minnesota side, none in Pennington County received that classification.

Minnesota Department of Transportation Bridge Engineer Edward Lutgen said the state prioritized bridge conditions in the wake of the Interstate 35 collapse that killed 13 people in 2007. Emergency legislative funds created a 10-year program to address structurally deficient or fracture-critical bridges.

"I think relatively speaking if you take a look at Minnesota in relation to many other states, North Dakota included, we are in much better condition than many other states," he said.

Even before the collapse, Lutgen said Minnesota had fewer structurally deficient bridges than the national average. Only about 1.6 percent of bridges in the state are structurally deficient now, he said. The program ends this year, but Lutgen said the department will continue to prioritize safety, though the number of structurally deficient bridges may rise slightly as bridges age.

Almost all northeast North Dakota counties are above the 2016 9.1 percent national average for structurally deficient, while most northwestern Minnesota counties have less than 2 percent of structurally deficient bridges.

Jamie Olson, a North Dakota Department of Transportation spokesperson said the majority of bridges in poor condition are county-owned and the ones least prioritized often see less traffic.

Each county is allotted state and federal funding for infrastructure and chooses which projects to prioritize.

Funding scarce

Lutgen said everything comes down to money.

"Transportation dollars go to many different priorities and initiatives," Lutgen said. "Bridges are one small piece of that."

The Nielsville Bridge could cost between $8.5 million and $11.7 million to repair, split between the states. Minnesota has funding available for its portion of the project, but North Dakota still does not have the cash three years later.

In Traill County, where the Nielsville Bridge sits, the county's entire yearly budget for roads wouldn't come close to covering half the cost. The county receives around $283,000 each year for the roads department.

There are over 400 bridges in the county, which are nearly all county-owned. Traill County Road Supervisor Cory Martin said there are a number of bridges that are closed or permanently shut down because there aren't enough funds to repair everything.

He said the county is making progress to fix bridges, though, and four to five bridges are taken off the structurally deficient list every year.

Martin said many of the bridges are old and some are in locations where there isn't as much of a need as there was in the past. Older bridges also weren't designed to withstand the wear and tear that comes along with modern traffic, he said.

"Look what a truck looked like in 1939, I think the guys building that bridge would've never guessed there'd be a 500-horsepower Kenworth on it in 2018," Martin said.

There is a federal grant application pending for the Nielsville Bridge, but Martin said he's unsure if the bridge will be chosen for the funding. He said it's the third application the county has submitted for the grant.

Republican lawmakers proposed an infrastructure solution in July and said they intend to distribute $280 million to fund infrastructure in counties not directly benefiting from the oil boom. The proposal would would set aside money from oil and gas tax collections for cities and counties to use on basic infrastructure needs if it is approved during the next legislative session. Revenues have remained ahead of previous forecasts during the last budget cycle and lawmakers are hoping they remain high.

Gerbracht said Nielsville Bridge's closure is hurting more than just her business—it's hurting farmers.

She said she talks with about 30 farmers regularly who have to drive longer routes to reach the nearest bridge 7 miles away in Climax, Minn.

Gerbracht said the structure is protected under a 1930 Congressional act that declared main roadways must be maintained. She said if North Dakota can't get funding together, she and the farmers may file a civil lawsuit.

"I'm not going to let this rest until they fix it," Gerbracht said.

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