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For Road Repairs in Brown County, Funding is Often Too Little, Too Late

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There are 142 federally recognized bridges in Brown County, plus around 400 miles of paved roads and 200 miles of gravel. And they don’t take care of themselves. Funding for upkeep comes from various levels of government, but the need is often greater than the funding.
 

While driving on a gravel road near Hecla, Brown County Highway Superintendent Dirk Rogers says this area is great for growing crops, but terrible for building roads.
 
“This is another county road, this road was paved when I came here in 2000,” Rogers says. “And it’s been raised up and it’s been cut through for pipe, and it’s been washed back out and flooded back over several times since then.”
 
Rogers says about one third of the roads in the county are in bad shape, a result of flooding that occurred from 2009 to 2011.

It’s a common problem in this area. Rogers takes me to a bridge built in 1948 that he says has spent quite a bit of time under water.

“We’re sitting on the north end of the Sand Lake Refuge here and that bridge has spent the past few years with water up underneath the member,” Rogers says. “So what ends up happening with a bridge like this, like I say, if we just sit here and look at it, it doesn’t look too bad. But underneath you have a lot of section loss in the metal. Basically it’s rusting, getting thinner, getting thinner, getting thinner.”

This damage is noted when the bridge is inspected every two years. When it gets to a certain point, like this bridge has, its carrying capacity is reduced. A sign near the highway lets drivers know this bridge cannot withstand heavy loads.
 
“And that kind of, in my opinion that’s where we start running into trouble where the ag producers or whoever, you can’t carry a loaded truck over the bridge,” Rogers says. “Now there’s not a lot of consistency between that posting and when the bridges are eligible for federal money. So like in Brown County right now, we have 31 bridges that you can’t take full loads over, but only 19 of them are eligible for federal money.”
 
Rogers says even the bridges that are eligible for federal money can’t be fixed right away. Funding for this bridge won’t arrive for nearly ten years. He says the eight or nine mile detour drivers have to take starts to add up.
 
“We can’t wait, right now this is affecting people and we can’t wait until 2024 to replace it,” Rogers says. “So we’re going to commit about $1.2 million for construction of entirely local money and hopefully in about a year start to finish it will be replaced.”
 

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A Brown County bridge that needs repair.

Rogers says the funding problems are at the federal level. He says Congress passes legislation to keep the Federal Highway Trust Fund operating on a short term basis. But he says they need to pass a complete bill with a long-term plan.
 
“There’s all kinds of outside factors,” Rogers says. “Again, I don’t want to turn it in to a political thing because the road doesn’t care if it’s a Democrat or a Republican driving on it, but there’s been outside factors that have affected the federal government’s ability to fund things.”
 
Road repairs are also funded locally. The Brown County Commission spends more than eight million dollars on roads and bridges each year. Doug Fjeldheim is a newly elected Commissioner. He says the need always outpaces the budget.
 
“We had a terrible, terrible time for three years,” Fjeldheim says. “And we spent most of the proceeds out of the budget trying to get the roads out of water, and trying to keep them above the water, so therefore we weren’t able to maintain anything. It was just a battle to keep things floating.”
 
He says funding issues would decrease if counties were allowed to implement a one percent sales tax.  
 
“It would be huge as far as the dollars,” Fjeldheim says. “And by that I mean if you come to Aberdeen and you buy $100 worth of groceries you pay four percent to the state and two percent to the city of Aberdeen. Well counties don’t share that money. If you would come to Aberdeen and pay that same $100 groceries and pay four to the state, two to the city, and one to the county, we would have a more adequate way of funding our roads and bridges.”
 
Fjeldheim says currently the tax is not an option for counties.
He says repairing the roads and bridges in Brown County will take time, and a lot of money.

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It takes a team of people and whole lot of money to make sure the roads and bridges we drive on stay safe. It can be a challenging job, especially when the need outpaces the funding.

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Rogers says heavy vehicles are not supposed to drive over this bridge. He says this truck may be okay...depending on the load it's carrying.

There are 142 federally recognized bridges in Brown County, including one near Hecla, built in 1948. Highway Superintendent Dirk Rogers says it’s been repaired from time to time, but floodwaters in 2009 to 2011 led its final demise. Just looking at it, you can’t tell there’s anything wrong, and cars can still drive across. But a sign near the highway states the reduced load limit, letting truck drivers know they need to choose another route.
 
“This bridge was programmed about two, three years ago to go into the federal bridge program,” Rogers says. “Its chance to get replaced doesn’t come up until 2024, and the bridge is currently posted as, you know, we were looking at that sign. So what it’s forced folks that want to use the bridge to do is they have to make a decision either to go over the bridge with a load that they know is heavier than what it’s posted at.  Or your alternative is to go around, and that’s about an eight, nine mile trip right now.”
 
Rogers says the alternate roads aren’t up to the standard for trucks because they don’t normally have to carry them. Plus, he says, those extra miles cost money. He says officials decided to use about one point two million dollars of local money to repair the bridge.
 
Newly elected County Commissioner Doug Fjeldheim says the need for repairs outpaces the budget. He says it would help if counties could impose a one percent sales tax.
 
“A one percent sales tax would be huge, because, and not doing the full study, just rough in my head, a one percent sales tax for Brown County would probably generate four million dollars,” Fjeldheim says. “And if they would designate that for just roads and bridges, yes, our infrastructure, over maybe five to ten years would improve immensely.”
 
But he says that’s not currently not an option.
So officials are working with what they’ve got. Fjeldheim says last year they bought a shredder. It’s cheaper to turn some paved roads into gravel.