Waco engineers consider federal funding for bridge repairs | Local government and politics

A federal infrastructure bill passed last year provides $537 million to maintain and repair bridges in Texas over five years, which could help fund repair projects the city of Waco has been weighing for years.

Local leaders are considering a bridge over Speegleville Road over the Middle Bosque River and a few across Primrose Creek, but details on how the money will be prioritized have not been finalized.

Under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Federal Highway Administration will allocate more than $27 billion through the Bridge Formula Program, which can fund projects owned by state departments of transportation and local governments. There are more than 55,000 bridges in Texas and about 677 in McLennan County, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

The city of Waco has seven high-priority bridge projects listed in its 2021-22 capital improvement plan, but cities have yet to receive clear guidance on which projects are eligible for funding, said Steven Martin, director of the City of Waco Engineering Division.

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“We haven’t seen any specific rules on the program,” Martin said. “We haven’t seen details on how we are to seek funding.”

He said the city periodically evaluates its own bridges, and engineering department staff are “well positioned” to start looking for funding when they know more. The Texas Department of Transportation assesses all 71 bridges for which it is responsible in Waco every two years, then uses the report to prioritize repairs.

Martin said TxDOT reports make recommendations that are either critical, which should be fixed in 30 days; urgent, which must be fixed within six months; or routine, which can wait up to 24 months. Waco’s latest bridge report listed 187 recommendations, none of which were critical.

“We have a handful of urgent fixes on those 71 bridges, and a bunch of routines,” Martin said.

The 660-foot Speegleville Road Bridge over the Middle Bosque River was built in 1964 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of the Lake Waco Dam Project, and is classified as “functionally obsolete” by TxDOT, according to the budget of the city.

“It’s old. It was built to different standards,” Martin said.

Widening Speegleville Road and the bridge from two to four lanes has been a city priority for years. The county has completed a road widening project from Highway 6 to the bridge, but from the bridge to Highway 84, the road remains 24 feet wide with only two lanes.

At one point, the federal infrastructure bill included funding specifically for the project after local authorities and Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Waco, worked together to shed light on its importance. But the article did not remain in the version adopted in the law.

The county moved utility lines out of the way of the new lanes and stopped just short of the bridge, where the city of Waco will, in theory, take over the project and complete the section of road, which will widen the bridge in ‘about 32 feet.

The city will also have to relocate utilities, including power lines parallel to the road, to complete the work.

The road narrows even more suddenly at the bridge now that the county-owned portion of the road has shoulders still missing from the bridge. The city plans to build a new two-lane bridge with shoulders next to the old one, then use the two for four lanes of traffic in two directions.

River Valley Middle School, which is just south of the bridge, will soon be converted to a middle school, which means more drivers will have to use Speegleville Road to drop off and pick up their children.

Other high-priority bridges in the city’s capital improvement plan include one over New Road on a Union Pacific rail line, one over Sanger Avenue between Town Oaks Drive and Westview Drive, and one over Herring Avenue on the other side of the Brazos river.

Three other high-priority bridges cross Primrose Creek at 18th, 12th and 3rd streets and may also be suitable for the federal bridge program. Martin said the bill emphasizes building resilient infrastructure, and between the age of the bridges, the conditions and their location in a floodplain designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, these three seem like good candidates.

In a Walker Partners study of Primrose Creek as part of an overall floodplain study, consultants suggested raising bridges several feet which could prevent them from plunging underwater during a flood and potentially reduce the floodplain.

TxDOT spokesman Adam Hammons said bridges classified as being in “poor” condition are still considered safe enough to continue carrying traffic despite needing repairs or maintenance. Every bridge in Texas is inspected regularly as part of the National Bridge Inspection Standards overseen by the Federal Highway Administration.

“It’s important to note that all open bridges in Texas are safe,” Hammons said.

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