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Semi that destroyed ND bridge was overweight, but repairing old structures still 'a huge concern,' highway head says

A century-old bridge about 2 miles northeast of Forest River, N.D., was destroyed last week after a semi that exceeded the bridge's weight limit drove across it. (April Baumgarten/Grand Forks Herald)

FOREST RIVER, N.D.—A semi that collapsed a century-old bridge Thursday morning in Walsh County was overweight, according to law enforcement and local leaders.

But despite the rare occurrence, there still are concerns about how the county will maintain and repair aging infrastructure as funding from the state decreases, the county's lead road official said Monday.

Finding funds to pay for infrastructure projects is "a huge problem in Walsh County," said Walsh County Highway Superintendent Sharon Lipsh. "We need to come up with a plan. We have more than 500 bridges in the county. We simply cannot fix them all."

The bridge about 2 miles northeast of Forest River collapsed under the weight of a six-axle semi driven by Melvin Armbrust of Forest River, according to a news release from the North Dakota Highway Patrol. Armbrust was uninjured.

The semi's weight far exceeded the limit of the bridge, said Sgt. Adam Dvorak.

"Normally, an empty semi will weight about 30,000 pounds," he said of the truck, noting the semi was full of corn. "He's probably 80,000 pounds at least."

Dealing with a situation in which a bridge collapses under the weight of a vehicle is rare, Dvorak said. Most people heed the weight-limit signs, and even if they do go across, a bridge collapsing is unusual, he added.

The Walsh County bridge was marked, and the Highway Patrol is looking at state law to decide whether charges are warranted, Dvorak said.

"It is a unique situation," he said. "I can't even think back in my (15-year) career where I have gone to one."

Forest River is about 30 miles northwest of Grand Forks.

The bridge was built in 1911 and was made of wood planks and steel supports. Though it was designated "structurally deficient," meaning it had one or more structural defects that needed attention, Lipsh said there was no concern of it failing.

According to Lipsh, the county has more than 500 bridges, 65 of which are structurally deficient and 15 that are" functionally obsolete," meaning they are "no longer by design functionally adequate for (their) tasks," according to definitions set by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Still, obsolete bridges may still be "perfectly safe and structurally sound," according to the DOT.

The bridge was inspected in September 2016 and wasn't due for another inspection until next year, Lipsh said. It wasn't on a list for repairs or replacement, she added.

Like other counties in North Dakota, Walsh County needs millions of dollars of investments and maintenance over the next year, according to North Dakota State University researchers with the Upper Plains Transportation Institute.

According to a draft report, Walsh County needs almost $30 million to pay for maintenance and repairs to its infrastructure for the 2017-18 biennium. But the county's highway department budget this year is about $3.8 million, with about $1.6 million going toward road projects.

North Dakota counties have had to tighten their budgets after a drop in statewide tax revenue. The county could see less funding in the coming years because of state laws that require a reduction in mill levies in the coming years, Lipsh said.

"How do you come up with that money?" she asked.

Walsh County is working on a strategic plan with the goal of prioritizing road and bridge projects. It has closed 13 bridges and replaced 18 bridges with culverts in the past five years, Lipsh said. It also has opened nine new bridges in that time period, with three new bridges planned for next year, she said.

The collapse is a good reminder to watch for weight-limit signs and for drivers to be cognizant of their vehicles' sizes, Dvorak said.

"There is a reason for marking (the bridges) the way they do," he said. "When something like this happens, usually it is a person from the area, and it's just going to cost the people of that area money to repair it."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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