Jonathan Ambarian

AUGUSTA (KPAX) — For years, federal and state leaders have been talking about a backlog of needed maintenance on infrastructure – and while more investments are going into roads and bridges, a lot of work remains.

Scripps News has gone through data from the Federal Highway Administration and identified more than 14,000 bridges nationwide that have been listed in poor condition for the last ten years. Bridges in poor condition are not necessarily at immediate risk, but they may require weight limits and more frequent inspections.

In Montana, that list included 81 bridges rated “structurally deficient” in either their deck, substructure or superstructure. They range from Lincoln County in the west to Wibaux County in the east, and they include everything from Interstates and federal highways to local streets and forest roads.

One of the listed bridges can be found on the Rocky Mountain Front, near the mouth of the Sun River Canyon west of Augusta. The one-lane bridge over the Sun River dates back to 1916. In a description on a federal website, leaders describe it as “structurally deficient and functionally obsolete,” and say its “poor condition and outdated design pose safety hazards and limitations to users.”

The Federal Highway Administration says the Sun River Bridge was initially intended primarily to serve the Greenfields Irrigation District, but it’s also used by residents, first responders and outfitters, among others. They are currently in the planning process to build a new bridge that will meet today’s design standards.

The federal bridge data for this state comes from the Montana Department of Transportation.

“All of our bridges have regular inspection cycles, and that varies depending on the condition that we find,” said Ryan Dahlke, MDT’s statewide preconstruction engineer.

Dahlke said MDT is using all the resources available to address infrastructure needs. He said a lot of factors go into deciding which projects are prioritized.

“The condition of the structure, cost, alternate detour routes, impact to the commerce – all of those things, just to name a few, are considered,” he said. “But above all, safety is our number-one priority – ensuring safety of the traveling public through our great state.”

During this year’s Montana legislative session, lawmakers looked at several ways to make more money available for road and bridge projects.

“In Montana, if we were to address every need that we had every year, we’d probably have $1 billion of need in reconstruction and maintenance and rehabbing roads and bridges, and what we have on an annual budget with our federal match is about $400 million,” said Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell. “So there's a big backlog growing.”

Sprunger sponsored House Bill 267, known as the SAFER Act – a bill that put $100 million from the state surplus into a new state account, where it will be used as matching funds to secure more federal grants.

“It truly is helping tackle deferred maintenance – significant deferred maintenance – and it can make a gigantic difference in getting where you need to go safely and efficiently,” she said.

The Legislature also approved Senate Bill 536, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, which allocated $100 million to support reconstruction and repairs to local roads and bridges.

Sprunger said one particular challenge for Montana will be upgrading more than 400 timber bridges – many of which are on county roads. She said the state has to comply with new federal standards for those bridges, but the federal government didn’t provide funding to address the issue.

The 81 structurally deficient bridges Scripps News identified in Montana were one of the lowest number of any state – compared with more than 1,000 in Iowa and Pennsylvania. In addition, some of the Montana bridges are already receiving attention. In Wolf Creek, a bridge over Little Prickly Pear Creek is still listed with a deck in poor condition, but it got a new deck last year as part of a large construction project.

The Federal Highway Administration says the Sun River Bridge project is currently its development and design phase. Construction could begin as soon as spring 2025.

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