There are about 300 bridges in Douglas County, and a third of them are considered to be structurally deficient.
Although that tidbit may cause a bit of concern for the average driver, it has a direct and critical impact on the forest products industry in Douglas County.
Bridges help loggers get to their worksites, get logs to mills and forest products to market. That work produces roughly $1.5 billion a year in economic activity and provides around 6,000 family-wage jobs in the county.
County officials painted a mixed picture of the state of area bridges Thursday at a meeting of the Douglas Timber Operators. Although there have been some recent victories when it comes to bridgework and the costly funding needed for that work — namely a $16.5 million federal grant — keeping the county’s aging bridges in working condition is still an uphill battle, those officials said.
“These bridges weren’t designed to handle the kinds of loads we’re seeing today,” said Scott Adams, the county’s public works director.
Bridges are designed to last an average of 50 years, but half of the county’s bridges are past that age, he said. Of the county’s 300 bridges, 179 are steel, 105 are concrete, eight are timber and eight are a combination of materials, he said.
The condition of the bridges is not just a safety issue but also an economic one. For example, a bridge’s condition affects how much weight it can hold and how fast logging vehicles can go on it, Adams said. Making repairs to a bridge can increase its capacity as set by the Oregon Department of Transportation, he said.
Working with government officials and regulators is always a challenge, Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman said. The $16.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation was an example of that. The timber operators organization and the county worked with U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield — chair of the powerful House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure — to help secure that funding. The county didn’t get all it wanted — it asked for $22 million — but those federal dollars, along with about $9 million from county coffers, is a big step forward, Freeman said.
“That was a big win for us,” he said of the grant.
Declining revenues and the direct impact that has on the county’s ability to perform critical work, like bridge repair, is a challenge, Freeman said. For example, the county used to have the equivalent of 1,200 full-time positions and now has under 500. The public works department used to have about 300 positions and now has about 60.
That puts the county in the position of having to do more with less, Freeman said.
“We’re making some tough decisions,” he said.
Dealing with government regulators also presents some challenges, especially when it comes to environmental regulations, Adams said. For example, 50% of the design cost in bridgework goes toward meeting government regulations and 30% of construction costs go toward those efforts, he said. Government regulations and requirements, such as an often lengthy review process, slows down the timetable for bridge projects, Adams said.
Taking all those challenges into account, moving forward the county will focus more on bridge maintenance and repair and a bit less on secondary bridgework projects, like adding sidewalks or signals, he said. The bottom line is bridgework should not be put off, Adams said.
“If we do bridgework now it will cost less than it will 10 years from now,” he said. “We’re strictly looking at trying to preserve what we have and working on the bridges.”