Seventy-five weakening bridges in line for replacement if Mayor-President Kip Holden’s $748 million bond issue proposal was approved now are likely to receive only “patches” and “temporary repairs,” Department of Public Works officials say.
Holden repeatedly has said his third attempt at winning passage of a bond issue is especially important because of bridge replacements necessary to protect the public.
“Now we’re talking about the lives of people,” he said Monday. “And I’ll tell you that it’s not about politics.”
Regardless of Holden’s calls to action, the Metro Council deleted the bond issue from the council’s agenda on Wednesday in an attempt to kill the proposal.
After the 9-3 vote to delete the bond issue, Holden told the news media the council was playing “Russian roulette with the lives and safety” of parish residents.
The bond issue, among other things, dedicated $80 million to bridge replacements. All 75 bridges were scheduled to be replaced within 10 years, said interim Public Works Director William Daniel.
The bridges, which range from 20 to 100 feet in length, average about $1 million each to replace, Daniel said.
In the absence of a bond issue, DPW indicated it cannot afford to be proactive about bridge health, and bridges would be replaced on an as-needed basis. Bridges that were going to be replaced will instead receive temporary fixes and repairs.
“We do have a (replacement) plan, but it can change quickly due to the fact conditions of bridges change so unexpectedly and sudden,” said DPW Chief Engineer Jim Ferguson. “Priorities and needs change and we become more reactive.”
DPW will close bridges that are in danger of collapse, Daniel said, but without funding to reopen the bridges, some areas could be plagued with additional traffic problems or lengthy detours.
It’s difficult to determine when and how many bridges could be closed, Deputy Public Works Director Bryan Harmon said, but he estimated that the impact would be significant, given the already weak condition of many of the parish’s bridges.
“If we were not to do anything, at some point in the next 20 years, at least half of the bridges on our list would be closed.”
Of the 305 bridges in the parish, more than 200 of them are built with timber structural components that make them more prone to deterioration.
The 75 bridges selected for replacement in the bond issue were chosen because they are ranked between zero and five by parish and state officials on a scale measuring structural condition of bridges, zero being “failed condition.”
There are 43 bridges that are ranked from zero to four, meaning they are considered to be in poor condition or worse.
Bridges given a five rating are considered to be in “fair” condition, but were included in the replacement list, Daniel said, because they are expected to be downgraded within the next few years.
Some members of the Metro Council said they were skeptical of how urgent the bridge problem is, considering there was no money appropriated for bridge repairs in Holden’s 2009 bond issue, which was rejected by voters.
But 38 bridges were to be included in Holden’s 2008 bond issue, which also was rejected by voters.
Daniel said bridges were “accidentally” left out of the second bond issue because some staff members believed funding had been secured for bridge replacement from the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the agency that allocates federal disaster grants in response to Hurricane Gustav.
The LRA grants trickle in slowly and will amount to about $17 million in total, Ferguson said.
“Even if we get all of that money, it falls very short of our funding needs for bridges,” he said.
While the bond issue proposal called for spending $80 million for upgrading bridges, Harmon said, more than $100 million of work is needed.
Without the bond issue, DPW will be piecing funds together out of the department’s budget, and from state and federal funds.
Daniel said state officials have warned that grant opportunities could dwindle next year.
Holden did not respond to a request for comment about his plans to address bridge safety short of the bond issue.
The reason so many bridges need to be fixed at once is because most of the bridges in the parish, and to some degree bridges nationwide, were built in the 1960s and 1970s and have life spans of 40 to 50 years, Ferguson said.
The situation worsened after Hurricane Gustav, because of wind damage, fallen trees and the hauling of hundreds of thousands of pounds of debris over the bridges in the months that followed.
“It kind of sped up that life cycle that was already coming to an end,” Ferguson said.
Harmon said the bridge component, along with traffic signal replacements, was the most important aspect of the mayor’s bond issue.
“If you have a vanload of people and a bridge collapses and you kill five people, that’s a problem,” he said. “That’s the health, safety and welfare of the public. It’s a true life-safety issue.”
But some council members seem unfazed by the threats to public safety posed by bridges.
Councilman Trae Welch said the mayor had more than seven months to convey the urgency of bridge replacement in the bond issue.
Holden’s office avoided repeated requests by the Metro Council for details about the bond issue for several months. The Metro Council finally received a 15-page description of the tax and bond package with one month left before the voting deadline to get it on the November ballot.
“We were systematically and purposefully blocked from any and all information,” Welch said.
He also said Holden sensationalized the bridge issue to pressure the council into being complicit.
“He created this sense of emergency that all of a sudden it’s some do-or-die situation,” Welch said. “When in fact, it’s not.”
Mayor Pro Tem Mike Walker, a councilman, agreed.
“He’s trying to create this sense of panic and make it our emergency,” Walker said of Holden’s push for bridge replacements. “Well it’s not going to be our emergency.”