The damaged 280th Street bridge over the South Skunk River is causing some headaches.
The tension in the temples can arrive in an everyday form: With the bridge closed, many employees at the Ames Water Pollution Control Plant have been forced to take a longer, roundabout path to get to work each day.
The pain can also come in the oh-no-we-might-have-to-spend-millions-of-dollars-to-fix-this-problem variety. Should Story County pay around $1.5 million or $2 million to replace the bridge? Or should it do something else?
Those are some of the questions facing the Story County Board of Supervisors. While replacing the bridge might seem like the obvious solution, it’s expensive. And if the county uses federal funds for the replacement, it could delay other bridge replacements and upkeep for several years, putting them at risk of being damaged or broken.
Supervisor Martin Chitty called it a “painfully seven-figure” problem. All because someone — who will probably remain forever unknown — broke the bridge.
This predicament began in November. Story County Engineer Darren Moon told the board on Nov. 14 that the bridge, which is on one of the two roads to get to the water plant, was damaged and had to be closed. The culprit was likely a too-heavy vehicle, probably some type of farm equipment. Moon said one corner of the bridge had dropped six inches and its caps were either damaged or broken. If you walk up to the bridge, you can see a distinct line in the road that marks where the road ends and the bridge begins.
Before it was broken, the bridge, which sits just east of Interstate 35, north of Cambridge, only saw between 40 and 60 cars cross it each day, mostly farmers who work in the surrounding fields or employees at the Ames Water Pollution Control Plant.
John Dunn, director of the Ames Water Pollution and Control Administration, said 280th Street was “almost exclusively” the route employees would take to work. Now, if they’re coming from the north, they have to circle around and come to the water plant via the city’s private road — an extra 2.5-mile trip.
“The issue is, really, its ease of access,” he said.
The city of Ames had built parts of 566th Avenue in the 1980s when it was building the water plant, and it still owns the private road today. With the bridge out, the city and county attorneys are working on an agreement to allow public access on the private Ames road. Dunn said the bridge closure wasn’t a major concern because of the alternate access, but he hoped the county will help maintain the private road during the winter, especially with a hill that causes problems in the snow.
Unsurprisingly, the timing of the closure is also inopportune. Moon said this week that the county is doing at least double the bridge replacements it did five to 10 years ago. Both of the county’s wood bridges, built in the 1950s and ‘60s, and the concrete spans that are more than 100 years old are reaching the end of their lives.
“It’s all kind of hitting us at once,” said Moon, who helps oversee more than 270 bridges in the county.
On the Story County Secondary Roads Department’s five-year construction plan for this fiscal year, there are 21 bridge projects listed. But not the 280th Street bridge. The county had expected to get at least a decade more out of it.
For bridge replacements, the county usually uses aid from the federal government — $341,000 per year, Moon said. Continuing, he said using that money to replace the 280th Street bridge — which, again, could cost around $2 million — could delay other replacements for about five years.
That could leave those other bridges at risk of sustaining their own damage and being closed. Best case, it only delays projects, like the ones on Sand Hill Trail off U.S. Highway 30 and northeast of Huxley.
“To me, it’d have such an impact on the rest of our bridge replacement and the program right now,” Moon said. “I would rather explore some other options than full replacement, but that’s ultimately going to be up to the board to decide.”
Dunn said he’d at least like to see a bridge that could support passenger traffic. Simply repairing it doesn’t seem like a viable option, though. The bridge’s current construction might not support the necessary repairs, and Story County Supervisors Rick Sanders and Lauris Olson said even if the bridge was fixed, there would be nothing to stop another heavy vehicle from driving over it and breaking it again.
Olson said the simple act of driving the heavy equipment over the bridge could have ripple effects — delaying projects, forcing closures on bridges where the work was delayed and inconveniencing county residents.
“When somebody negligently does this … that’s the long-term ramification,” she said.
Olson said she didn’t want to see other bridge projects held up because the 280th Street span was being replaced, but she said she didn’t have a “preferred option” yet on how to proceed. She also wants to get more information on a solution Sanders brought up — buying all the land around the bridge and turning it into a conservation area, making the bridge void.
“Our choices will be at least a year out,” she said.
The conservation idea was one of several options Sanders raised at a recent board meeting, not that he was excited about any of them. He said he could get behind the county borrowing money through a general-obligation bond to replace it, but that would be a last resort.
“There just aren’t any great options for us,” he said.
Chitty echoed what Sanders said. If the water plant wasn’t back there, he said there would be a compelling argument to simply close the bridge, which the county did in another case this year. He hopes Ames and the county could work together toward a bridge solution.
“We are left with making hard choices.”