Government

Dealing with Iowa's deficient bridges could hurt budgets: Moody's

Cost of repairing its bridges leaped 20 percent

The bridge over Indian Creek along Winslow Rd. south of Rolling Glen Drive in Marion, Iowa, on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
The bridge over Indian Creek along Winslow Rd. south of Rolling Glen Drive in Marion, Iowa, on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Iowa’s laundry list of dilapidated bridges could put added strain on the pocketbooks of local county governments who maintain the lionshare of the state’s bridge inventory.

A report released Thursday from global rating agency Moody’s Investor Services, which cites new data from the Federal Highway Administration, states Iowa — rated by Moody’s as Aaa stable — had nearly 5,000 non-federal, structurally deficient bridges last year. That’s 21 percent of the bridges in the state and more than double the national average, according to the report.

“What makes Iowa unique is that it led the nation in the number of structurally deficient bridges at the non-federal level,” David Jacobson, a Moody’s spokesman, told The Gazette. “The other thing about Iowa is the counties in Iowa have a higher share of non-federal bridges than any other state in the country. So they’re more exposed to the growing cost of repairs.”

Iowa counties own and maintain 78 percent of the state’s non-federal bridges, compared to the national average of 37 percent.

In addition, the report indicates the estimated cost of fixing all those bridges has increased by 20 percent in the past four years — from $447 million to $540 million.

According to the report, the problem is that Iowa’s state and federal sources of bridge funds has not kept up with the growing backlog of deficient bridges, which means local revenues will become increasingly important for infrastructure needs.

“This poses a particular credit hazard for counties as they growing cost of bridge repairs will likely pressure operating budgets or increase debt burdens,” the report states. “Iowa counties generally have leeway to raise taxes to help with bridge maintenance, but without additional federal and state funding, an increased reliance on local taxes will impair counties’ financial flexibility.”

Jacobson said that doesn’t necessarily mean credit scores will begin to drop for Iowa counties, but it poses a risk.

The report states that 55 of Iowa’s 99 counties have at least 20 percent of their bridge stock classified as structurally deficient.

Johnson and Linn counties, however, are in relatively good shape, with only 12 percent and 9 percent of the bridges in those counties deemed structurally deficient, respectively.

Meanwhile to the west, 39 percent of the bridges in Tama County are considered structurally deficient.

A structurally deficient bridge is not necessarily a safety hazard, but has one or more of its key elements — such as the deck, superstructure or substructure — considered to be in poor condition or worse.

Iowa ranks first in the nation in terms of the total number of deficient bridges — more than 24,000 — and third for the percentage of deficient bridges in a state’s overall inventory, according to a 2015 National Bridge Inventory report by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, which uses Federal Highway Administration data.

More than 2,600 of Iowa’s bridges have been put under posted weight limits due to their deficiencies, according to Iowa Department of Transportation data.

The recent increase of Iowa’s gas tax is estimated to add about $213 million annually to the state road fund, which means an additional $101 million to state projects, $70 million to county projects and $42 million to city projects.

Those projects are intended to reduce Iowa’s stock of deficient bridges.

l Comments: (319) 339-3175; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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