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Flooding challenges crumbling infrastructure

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Floodwaters across Central Indiana this year are testing the stability of aging infrastructure. A flood-driven culvert collapse June 20 on Keystone Ave. highlighted how quickly a functioning traffic artery can transform into a major unplanned construction project.

“We absolutely have a bridge problem in this city,” Molly Deuberry, a spokesperson with the Indianapolis Department of Public Works, said in an interview following the collapse. “The city has a need for bridge repair and we know that.”

Rebuild Indy funds will allow the city to pursue 23 different bridge improvement projects this year, she said, adding that the city usually is able to accomplish just two or three. Still, budget cuts leave the city with fewer resources to deal with unplanned emergencies.

The public works operating budget adopted by the city-county council for fiscal year 2011 is down an estimated 5 percent — or $8 million — from the previous year. The department’s capital budget is down about 21 percent, nearly $11 million.

Related detours and delays, which the city scrambled to ease on Keystone by combining north and southbound traffic over the remaining intact lane, are magnified in areas across the state where weight restrictions on troubled bridges can cause costly detours as heavy traffic such as semi trucks and school buses are diverted for miles around their usual routes.

The advocacy group Transportation for America released an analysis of bridge inspection data this spring that found that nearly 2,000, or 11 percent, of the bridges across the state, were considered structurally deficient. Though such a classification is by no means the same as imminent collapse, according to engineering officials. Some deficient bridges may have more significant foundational issues, while other deficiency scores can be driven by troublesome surface issues such as severe and widespread potholes. Still, it should be noted these numbers mark an improvement from a 2010 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, in which 22.2 percent of the state’s bridges were classified as structurally deficient.

The Transportation for America report ranked Indiana 26th in the nation in terms of its percentage of deficient bridges. It noted that, on average, more than 5.7 million vehicles, or about 6.3 percent of the state’s total traffic volume, crossed one of the deficient bridges each day.

Of Indiana’s neighboring states, only Michigan — at 13 percent —had a higher portion of structurally deficient bridges. It ranked 13th in the nation, with Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois ranking 29th, 30th and 35th, respectively. Marion County has eight of the state’s top 10 structurally deficient bridges with the highest traffic volume, according the report.

The Keystone collapse is just one example of how floodwaters can exacerbate infrastructure challenges (See image below). As of June 27, precipitation levels in Central Indiana were at 29.89 inches for the year, or about 50 percent higher than the 20.1-inch average, according to meteorologist Mike Ryan of the National Weather Service, Indianapolis office.

Every flood event requires extra attention from local maintenance and inspection crews. The most recent state data available on bridge scour, in which floodwaters accelerate erosion at bridge bases, estimates that 55 Indiana counties had a total of 401 bridges considered “scour critical” or closed due to scour issues. This marks an improvement from 2009, when Indiana had 668 scour critical bridges in 62 counties.

A special federal funding stream released following the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse enabled Indiana to take a more aggressive approach to its scour issues, said Will Wingfield, a spokesperson with the Indiana Department of Transportation. The struggle to keep up with the growing costs of aging infrastructure — government reports issued since 2008 peg the estimated cost of all Indiana’s necessary bridge improvements at more than $3 billion — is causing officials at all levels of government to reconsider their approach to transportation-related funding and philosophy.

Some see the infrastructure challenges as an opportunity to reorient the nation away from its highway-building era toward a highway-maintenance model.

“We need to fix the roads we have and make them safer for foot and bicycle traffic, and we have to expand public transportation nationwide,” said David Goldberg, a Transportation for America spokesperson, noting his organization advocates for greater focus on urban transportation hubs.

These positions are countered by contingents that would like to see federal road-building efforts expanded.

Discussion over transportation funding strategies is ongoing at the state level, as well. The 2011 Indiana General Assembly created a joint study committee, which is set to meet later this summer and fall, to research future infrastructure funding mechanisms. The committee membership and exact meeting dates have yet to be determined, according to legislative staff.

The state is also waiting for new funding signals from Congress, which has been approving short-term expansions of the federal transportation program since its 2009 expiration.

“Funding is always an issue,” said Stephanie Yager, executive director of the Indiana Association of County Commissioners.

Bridge inspections are federally funded, she said, but with just one pool of money allocated for inspections and improvements, when the cost of inspections increases, the amount available for repair decreases. And, she added, the cost of inspections just increased.

Inspectors must now report their findings online. Eventually officials expect the streamlined system to be more cost-effective and allow greater analysis of the infrastructure needs statewide, but setup of the new reporting system presents additional short-term costs at a time when funds are already tight, Yager said.

Engineers evaluate a culvert that collapsed on June 20 below Keystone Avenue. Officials won't know until later this week the estimated cost to repair the structure. The repairs are targeted for completion by September.
  • Engineers evaluate a culvert that collapsed on June 20 below Keystone Avenue. Officials won't know until later this week the estimated cost to repair the structure. The repairs are targeted for completion by September.

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