County makes wise choices on bridges

Jefferson County Engineer James Branagan and his staff could see the writing on the wall about five years ago.

One in four county and township bridges was rated poor and in need of quick attention. The cost to handle that, though, would have eaten into the department’s money, reducing the ability to repave roads. Fix the bridges, and the roads would deteriorate.

So Branagan opted to take out a $4 million loan and aggressively attack bridge replacements, a plan that would leave money in the budget for paving projects.

Today only a handful of bridges are rated poor.

The county also receives state and federal money for bridge fixes.

About $12.5 million in county, state and federal money has been invested in replacing or fixing bridges since 2014.

Ohio and other states pushed for increased bridge inspections after the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis in which 13 people were killed and 145 were injured.

Kara Bernhart, county bridge engineer, has the task of inspecting about 200 county and township bridges on an annual basis. The county engineer is responsible for township bridges, bridges which will require attention in the near future and are looked at several times a year.

The county today has a manageable bridge system, where a handful of bridges will be repaired or replaced on an annual basis and worked into the budget without causing a hardship on other projects.

Workers at the county highway department also are tackling some of the smaller bridge projects on their own, reducing the overall cost.

Branagan made a wise choice years ago to take out the loan. Nobody likes to see the county take on debt. But, sometimes, there are few other choices. It is like a home improvement project. It can be difficult to pay for the work based on what is in the checking account.

Branagan also is lucky to have taken the approach. The well-above average rainfall last year has led to numerous slips on county roads. The department usually spends about $200,000 a year on slips. He estimates it will take about $4 million to fix those slips.