Local residents should feel safe driving on the county's 426 bridges, Hall County Surveyor Casey Sherlock said.

"Your concerns shouldn't be elevated about traveling over any bridges in Hall County not any more than normal," Sherlock said on Thursday.

But the county has some catching up to do to keep it that way.

Concern about the Roads Department budget and the condition of local bridges became a topic of discussion at a Hall County Board of Supervisors budget meeting on Thursday after a major bridge in Minneapolis collapsed during rush hour on Wednesday.

The unexpected structural failure killed at least four people and sent dozens of cars into the Mississippi River. Crews continued to search for cars and bodies trapped in the river and beneath debris Thursday evening.

"What happened last night in Minneapolis could happen on Airport Road where the bridge is," said Dan Wagoner, a Hall County supervisor and member of the roads committee, during the meeting Thursday afternoon.

"These roads are in a very serious condition," he said.

The county Roads Department had to push back the replacement of four bridges this year after the unexpectedly high cost of gravel squeezed about $200,000 out of the budget, Sherlock said.

If the board approves the funding, the county will be playing catch-up this fall and winter to take care of the needed replacements, he said.

One bridge that is scheduled for replacement this winter is on Airport Road, as Wagoner mentioned. County crews inspect the bridge almost every time it rains because of erosion that's occurring around the structure, Sherlock said. The new bridge is budgeted at $120,000.

Hall County has 186 bridges longer than 20 feet and 240 bridges shorter than 20 feet, Sherlock said. Their ages range from more than 70 years old to just a few months old.

The bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis was a truss bridge, Sherlock said, and Hall County has a few similar but much smaller structures. One collapsed in 1971 on White Cloud Road between 110th Road and Schauppsville Road.

The state currently has surveillance over all of Nebraska's 15,500 bridges, said Lyman Freemon, engineer for the bridge division of the Nebraska Department of Roads.

And while bridges on state-run roadways are generally in good condition, Freemon said many of those on county roads are not faring as well.

"On the county system, they have some serious problems," he said. "They have a lot of bridges that are old many of them 70 to 80 years old. They need attention, but there's no funds to do it."

Sherlock said that, while area bridges are inspected regularly and should be considered safe, the roads budget is not where he'd like it to be.

"I think it falls short of what we should be replacing," he said. "I would feel better about replacing at least six bridges per year.

"Obviously, if you don't keep your roads and your bridges in good condition, there are risks to the public." To ensure the bridges in Hall County are structurally sound, a team of inspectors examines them on a rotating schedule, Sherlock said. Most bridges are inspected every other year, but those of concern are inspected more often.

The county closes any bridge it is worried about, regardless of whether the department has the funds to fix the problem.

Sherlock said he hopes the county will also approve the addition of a county engineer in the upcoming budget. Currently, the surveyor must contract an engineer to answer any questions about structural problems, and having a full-time staff member would provide more convenient expertise.

"It would help the public to feel safer," he said.

Both Wagoner and Freemon said Wednesday's disaster in Minneapolis may catch the attention of more county board members, like those in Hall County, and highlight the need for proper funding for bridges. "If anything at all good comes out of that terrible situation, that could be it," Freemon said.

Source: The Grand Island Independent, August 3, 2007.