OKLAHOMA CITY — Decades of neglect to the state’s aging transportation system have left thousands of bridges in desperate need of expensive replacement or repair.
Nearly 1 in 7 of Oklahoma’s county bridges can’t support the weight of a fully loaded school bus, said Randy Robinson, executive director of the Oklahoma Cooperative Circuit Engineering Districts Board. The board helps tackle transportation issues on the county roadway system.
Bridges can’t support the weight of oil and gas trucks or agricultural equipment that need the structures to get their products to market, he said.
Despite spending billions on bridge repairs in the past few years, Oklahoma ranks third worst in the total number of structurally deficient bridges and ninth worst in the number of deficient bridges as the percentage of inventory, according to the annual analysis by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.
More than 3,100 bridges are posted for load, which restricts the size and weight of vehicles using the bridges, the group said.
And transportation advocates said the problem isn’t likely going to improve anytime soon.
In the past three years, the Legislature has redirected $230 million from the state’s County Improvement Roads and Bridges fund to help finance other government priorities, Robinson said. Some of those funds were allocated to pay for county bridge rehabilitation.
Of the 23,071 bridges in the state, more than 3,200 are structurally deficient, the group found. About 85 percent of the state’s deficient bridges are located on county roadways, Robinson said.
“That makes it tough,” Robinson said. “We’re making headway. It’s tough when you don’t have good, consistent funding stream to make those types of improvements.”
A structurally deficient bridge isn’t necessarily on the verge of collapse but has major defects in its structure that require replacement or rehabilitation, said Cody Boyd, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Transportation.
“Even though they’re not dangerous — they’re not at risk of falling down — they’re a huge drain on our maintenance budget just trying to keep them open,” Boyd said.
Replacing deficient bridges has been the top priority for the agency, Boyd said. Since budget year 2013, the state has spent $2.4 billion fixing many of the 6,800 bridges located on state and U.S. highways and interstates. On those roadways, only 251 deficient bridges remain.
Over the past decade, the 2,653 bridges have been replaced statewide and 389 have undergone major reconstruction, according to the transportation group.
Many of Oklahoma’s bridges are decades old. They weren’t designed to withstand the needs of Oklahoma’s major industries, modern vehicles and traffic counts, advocates say.
But for nearly two decades until the mid-2000s, the Legislature underfunded the state’s transportation system, so preventative maintenance didn’t happen on the aging infrastructure. That neglect exacerbated the problem’s costs, Boyd said.
“With no money for any kind of preventative maintenance, they deteriorated to the point of having to replace bridges,” Boyd said.
Counties, meanwhile, are struggling to pay for costly repairs to bridges located on their roadways. The state Department of Transportation finances major highway repairs and larger municipalities fund those within city limits. However, the responsibility for maintaining 13,565 bridges — or about 66 percent of the inventory — falls to the counties.
“The counties, of course, have their own struggles getting the amount of funding versus the amount of needs that are out there,” Boyd said. “They have a huge challenge with just the large number of bridges they have on their system.”
Typically, the state pays about 75 percent of the cost. Tribes or the federal government pay the rest, Robinson said.
Over the past two decades, 4,161 county bridges have already been replaced or repaired, but it will ultimately cost about $1 billion to replace the rest, Robinson said.
Seminole, Creek, Lincoln, Logan and Pawnee counties have the highest percentage of deficient bridges, Robinson said.
“We’re doing a lot of catch-up,” Robinson said.
The Legislature’s decision to redirect transportation funding has delayed or canceled 170 projects, he said.
John Cox is spokesman with Transportation Revenues Used Strictly for Transportation, which advocates for transportation funding. Cox said the state has made “tremendous progress” in catching up on repairs, but removing money from the county road and bridge account will impact that.
“I think TRUST feels like over the last three legislative sessions that the state budget has been partially balanced on the back of transportation in that funds have been swept out of the state plan,” Cox said.
“That has definitely impacted repairing and rehabilitating structurally deficient bridges on the county system. I think the public should be concerned because it’s a public safety issue. We have bridges all across the state that are decades old. They’re not built for modern vehicles, heavy trucks, school buses. They need to be modernized.”
The group endorses a 6-cent gasoline and diesel tax, which is touted as helping fund roadway improvements. The tax is scheduled to be voted on by the Legislature as early as Monday.
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said he does not expect that the Legislature will tap the county road fund again this session, but he said passing the fuel tax is important.
“(It) would supplement and help the need for transportation improvements in the state of Oklahoma both at the state level and the county level,” McCall said.
Advocates, meanwhile, say the repairs will take time and money and a long-term commitment from the Legislature.
“We still have a long ways to go to get caught up to where we need to be,” Boyd said. “Once we get caught up, we’re going to need consistent, stable state funding just to maintain them.”