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County turns to feds to help replace worn bridge

Pierce County Supervisors are asking for extra federal money to help replace the old salt-damaged bridge on CTH F in the area commonly known as "Clifton Hollow."

The two-lane bridge, which crosses the nearly 200-foot-deep Kinnickinnic River valley gorge, has grades of 10 percent on both approaches. Tight curves on the road leading to the bridge also pose challenges to drivers, especially during bad weather, according to a county board resolution that will come to a vote Jan. 22.

"It's going to be a pricey project that's got to happen at sometime," said Supervisor Jim Camery, a member of the county's Highway Committee.

Federal funding is in place to pay 80 percent of approved replacement costs for the existing 156-foot bridge in 2010. But county board members are asking for additional federal money to help pay to lower the grades and widen the curves approaching the bridge.

Even if it is received, the federal money will mean extra cost to the county, which will have to come up with another $620,000 in matching funds and $100,000 in land acquisition costs, said Highway Commissioner Ross Christopherson.

"Nothing's free," he said.

As planned, the project would cost the county $1.28 million. The expanded project would cost Pierce County $2 million.

The 40-year-old three-span bridge serves a section of road connecting Prescott, Hudson and River Falls. According to local highway officials, CTH F is the most heavily traveled county road in Pierce County. The average traffic volume on the bridge in 2006 was 2,900 vehicles a day. The 20-year projection is 4,600 vehicles per day.

The vehicle crash rate for the mile stretch of roadway near the bridge is almost four times the state average for county roads.

Christopherson said approach slopes and frequent use of salt to cut the ice on the slopes lead to salt running over the edge of the bridge and damaging the lower inside of the structure.

Using a term that became well-known after the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis last summer, Christopherson said the CTH F bridge has a "sufficiency rating" of 34. Bridges with ratings below 50 qualify for federal funds to be replaced, he said.

Two other Pierce County bridges have lower sufficiency ratings, but both are small bridges on less-traveled roads and both are set for replacement in the next two years, said Christopherson.

Replacing the existing bridge, and requesting Department of Transportation exceptions for steeper grades and tighter curves, will cost an estimated $4.4 million. Approval has been received for a $3.9 million federal project, meaning the federal government will pay 80 percent of that amount, leaving the county to pay $1.28 million.

The expanded project would cost about $7.6 million, with the federal government picking up $5.6 million. Christopherson said the county would have to buy extra land to lower the grades and widen the curves. Federal funds won't cover any part of the estimated $100,000 needed for that.

The Highway Committee looked at the possibility of constructing a bridge and approaches built to 55 mph standards and learned that would cost $17 million to $38 million.

"We said that's impossible. We can't spend that much," said Christopherson.

While the road isn't posted for speed, drivers often travel at 55 mph.

"But you can't drive it at 55 all the time," said Christopherson. The new bridge area would be posted at 45 mph.

If the resolution is adopted by the county board, the county will begin lobbying the area's representatives in Washington, D.C., to request federal "earmark" funding for this specific bridge project, said Christopherson.

"Madison is important, but to be honest, the real money for this is in Washington," said Camery.

He said boards and councils from cities and towns served by CTH F will be asked to support the request.

"It's simply, let's all speak with one voice on this," said Camery.