Polk County has had to accelerate its schedule of bridge maintenance after receiving letters from the state indicating two needed upgrades within the next 30 days.

Public Works Director Todd Whitaker told the County Commissioners at their meeting Aug. 31 the state Department of Transportation is load grading all the bridges in the state.

“It’s a new load grading system that is surprising a lot of counties and cities and owners of bridges because it is looking at new criteria,” Whitaker said.

He explained the frustrating part is the state mails out their weight restriction letters many months after the inspection leaving little time to make repairs.

“We got one for Greenwood and Tucker road bridges. Tucker we had already planned to do a project there. But the restriction letter we got for that one required all four bents (also known as pilings) to have their caps replaced (which span over the pilings). We had only planned to replace two,” Whitaker said. “That only gave us 30 days to make replacements before load restrictions need to be signed.”

Public Works department placed signs out last week notifying local traffic of the planned projects. Whitaker does not expect any road closures to complete the work.

“Vehicle traffic can go around easily. But farm equipment may be slower moving, more difficult to move around,” he added.

Whitaker said it’s been a frustrating process. To expedite the county’s turnaround time, he said he’s been trying to get access to that inspection information before it is mailed out, but has hit roadblocks within the state’s bureaucracy.

“They hire consultants who go out to load rate these bridges. We ask to please send us a copy of that report when it’s done, even though you haven’t reviewed it. Put a stamp of ‘preliminary’ on it. At least gives us a heads up what bridges are likely to get a report on,” Whitaker said.

As an example, last year a bridge report was done in Perrydale on a short bridge over Highway 22. Whitaker said that report was done in June but the Polk County didn’t get the notice until December.

“You’ve got 30 days to get it done. Blackrock Bridge you can do that one in winter. Some of these bridges you can’t do that. If we could have had some anticipation of that in June, we could have gotten it done in dry weather,” he said.

To stay ahead of the state’s notifications, Whitaker said Polk County is kind of unique, going after these susceptible bridges in need of upgrades and making repairs to avoid state load restrictions.

The ODOT did send out letters with high, medium and lowest priority bridges needing attention. Whitaker said the most troubling one within the highest priority for their analysis was the Lukiamute Overflow Bridge, which is just south if Helmick Park by about a ¼ mile.

“It has 20 bents on it. If they restrict that one to less than legal loads, there’s grass seed warehouse there, some other things down on Simpson Road. There’s no good way to get truck traffic out of that area,” Whitaker said.

“A backup plan we’re working on there is, on a temporary basis, reestablish that with gravel so a truck could make a turn. Only other thing they can do is go out the south end and go down to coffin butte and try to find a place to turn around,” he added.

Chairman Craig Pope asked Whitaker about Marion County’s status of meeting ODOT’s new load requirements for the Independence bridge. Pope shared his experience driving over bridge, which has happened before, but startles him every time it does.

“Coming back from River Road to Independence from Salem, I had to sit on bridge because repaving project on Main Street in Independence had westbound traffic backed up all the way over the bridge,” Pope said. “So, I’m sitting 2/3 way on Independence side. At first, I didn’t feel it. But eventually I felt the bridge moving. Substantially moving. It’s like, what’s happing right now? Is this an earthquake? No, it’s just this funny little ribbon bridge that just bounces around. Talked myself off the edge of the cliff. I’ve experienced it before, but not often enough to remember oh this is the way this bridge is. But it’s a little remarkable to feel your whole vehicle moving up and down.”

Pope implied the Independence bridge is no Galloping Girtie, a Washington state bridge that collapsed in 1940 over the Tacoma Narrows from too much twisting due to high winds. However, Pope didn’t like the fact Polk County relied solely upon Marion County to complete upgrades to a span that heavily impacted the Independence area.

He added even though this is in Marion County’s wheelhouse, as a Polk County Commissioner, he didn’t want to sit there hopeless and beholden to another county for the connection between our two counties.

Whitiker said Marion County’s Public Works Director Brian Nicholas told him ODOT did not give them the emergency funding they needed to make the necessary repairs. Instead putting money into strengthening its 25 to 27 bents.

“So, we’re talking four to six years for the current schedule for that. They estimated between $2-3 million for that budget. It would be nice to see it prioritized find that emergency funding put in there,” he said.

Whitaker added ODOT did loosen the restriction a little bit. He said Marion County hired somebody to go back through the load calculations to recalculate the 26-ton limit.

“I think they’re at 40 tons now. Helped a lot of the general traffic. As far as specialized hauling vehicles, the SH5s and above, were starting to see some. Blue Heron Farms and some of the ag farms over there, 80,000 is a big restriction for them,” Whitaker said. “I asked Brian if they’re still getting a lot of complaints and he said no. Don’t know if that’s because of increase of allowable loads or people just go used to it.”

Commissioner Lyle Mordhorst promised to reach out to ODOT to check on the progress of Congress allocating construction funds for local bridge projects in its $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

“The state still has limited funds, so they figure out ways to do things in stages,” he said.

Pope added the problem is the state over allocates money to major projects while counties are left waiting for upgrades to major connections between them.

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