How safe are Wisconsin’s bridges?

How safe are bridges in the state and in our corner of Wisconsin? We asked the Brown County Highway Commissioner, a certified federal bridge inspector
Published: Jan. 28, 2022 at 5:29 PM CST
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BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - The bridge collapse in Pittsburgh Friday morning raises questions about bridges across Northeast Wisconsin. Are they safe? What needs to be replaced? And when?

We asked engineers at the local and state level for information on bridge conditions and what’s being done to ensure they’re safe for the motoring public.

“I can’t imagine,” says Paul Fontecchio, thinking of the bridge collapse in Pittsburgh. “You just always assume that the infrastructure is going to be underneath you.”

As Brown County’s highway commissioner, an engineer and a certified federal bridge inspector, Fontecchio has spent a lot of time crawling under all 77 bridges the county is responsible for, ensuring their safety.

When he took on the job about 10 years ago, not all bridges were safe.

“There was some serious bridge failure,” says Fontecchio.

He showed us pictures of a bridge on Highway ZZ over the East River. There were large pieces of rotten, deteriorating wood underneath.

It prompted immediate action, and the bridge was replaced.

A decade ago Fontecchio says 12 county-owned bridges were in “poor” condition. That’s the worst rating possible.

A bridge in Flintville, near Suamico, was also on the “poor” bridges list. It was replaced last year.

“I’ve gotten calls from my engineers in the field, ‘You need to come out and look at this bridge right now,’ and we’ve shut the bridge down,” says Fontecchio.

Of all the county owned-bridges he oversees, Fontecchio says 60 are rated good, 16 are fair, and just one is poor -- with plans to replace it as well.

Statewide, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation says two percent of the state-owned and 10 percent of the locally-owned bridges are in “poor” shape.

“We know bridges are going to deteriorate, you know, especially in a state like Wisconsin. We’ve all lived through the winters, lived through the summer as we see the extremes, the heat, the extremes of cold. We know that they’re going to deteriorate. The key is keeping track of it,” says Josh Dietsche, state bridge engineer with Wisconsin DOT.

The federal government requires all bridges in the country be inspected at least once every two years. As we did our research on bridges across Wisconsin, we found many were upwards of 75 years old. Dietsche says age is also a factor in bridge conditions.

In 11 counties that make up the DOT’s Northeast Wisconsin region, he says only one state-owned bridge is in poor condition but about 130 locally owned ones are considered poor.

“But the really important thing to note there is that poor doesn’t mean unsafe. Poor means that there is some level, some advanced level of deterioration, but we inspect bridges on a regular basis,” says Dietsche. “And as they deteriorate more, we inspect them more frequently to make sure that they are still safe for the public to use.”

The federal government maintains a database of bridge information and ratings. It lists more bridges in poor condition in southern Wisconsin, but Dietsche says there’s not one area of the state where poor bridges are concentrated.

We looked at data for several Brown County bridges with Fontecchio, and found that some of those currently listed as poor in that national database were actually already replaced and should be listed in good condition. He cautions people against relying on that database as their sole information for bridge conditions.

The DOT says Wisconsin is in line to receive $45 million over 5 years for bridge funding from the federal infrastructure law, but how it will be allocated has yet to be determined.

“It’s most definitely going to go in large part to to replace or rehabilitate those bridges that are in a more deteriorating condition,” explains Dietsche.

As Fontecchio looks closely at the data, he can easily see the place he thinks the money is most needed.

“If it doesn’t get money to the towns where we have these really 100-year-old bridges, then what are we doing?”

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