by Ian Johanson
for The Beacon
If there’s one word most used to describe the nation’s infrastructure, it’s “crumbling.”
“After decades of disinvestment, our roads, bridges, and water systems are crumbling,” a March fact sheet from the White House says. “Gov. Evers ran for governor on a commitment to fix our crumbling roads and infrastructure,” reads Evers’ transportation and infrastructure plan web page.
A small, 92 year old bridge over a tiny stream east of Hingham on County Road W shows just how literal that “crumbling” is. One guardrail wobbles with a gentle push, attachment bolts broken and suspended mid-air. The bridge sides are fragmented and well, crumbling, like hunks of stale bread.
Everyone agrees the bridge needs to be replaced, but a dispute has arisen between nearby land-owners, six of whom are farmers, and Sheboygan County on just how big the replacement should be, illustrating that doing what obviously needs to be done with infrastructure does not mean it will be easy.
Despite its small size, the bridge plays a big role in draining thousands of acres. Floodwaters have three times in the past 50 years risen to overflow the road, according to Carl TenPas, one of the land-owners. The property owners say the bridge opening is simply too narrow to handle periodic high water loads without excessively backing up and flooding the surrounding land. This decreases farmable acreage by an estimated 14 total acres, which equates to over $1 million in corn over a 100 year life span of the bridge, according to Carl’s brother Jeff TenPas. “The bridge ain’t big enough!” Carl says emphatically.
The county agrees on the need for a bigger bridge, but the plan is for a 28 foot replacement (with a 26.5’ opening), compared to the current 20 feet. The TenPas brothers are pushing for a 40 footer.
Greg Schnell, the Transportation Director for the Sheboygan County Transportation Department, says the new design far exceeds the DNR’s requirements for a 12.8 foot bank flow width, and that the department upped the design to 28 feet from 24 (21.5’ opening) based upon local neighbors’ input.
Farmers aren’t the only ones with a financial interest, Schnell points out in an email to Jeff. Federal funding will cover 80% of the cost of a 28 foot bridge, but 0% of the difference between the approved size and a 40 foot bridge, with Sheboygan County taxpayers picking up the difference, which would be around $100,000 for starters, with additional costs likely. There is even the risk that the delays involved with a bigger design might jeopardize the entire federal funding for the project, Schnell says.
Jeff suggests full hydraulic modeling be done on a 40-foot replacement. But Schnell says it would not be within the scope of a design contract to do full hydraulic and hydrological analyses for additional alternatives, plus the county is responsible for paying for all design work. And anyway, Schnell says, a 40-foot bridge would increase the downstream flood level and “could place an added burden on your neighbors with property to the south.” Jeff argues that channel cleaning downstream would eliminate downstream flooding from a bigger bridge.
“No bridge possible is going to reduce the impact [on farmable acreage] to zero,” Jeff acknowledged in a reply to Schnell. “But the impacts can be reduced in a reasonable way to a reasonable extent. This should be justification enough for the state and feds to cover their share of whatever is agreed to. The point of comparison for county bridge costs is crop losses.”
“We urge the County to take a proactive approach when replacing bridges and culverts to look into the backwater effects of bridges and protect our ag lands from the false economy of undersized bridges. Then restore natural drainage and decrease environment damage from these 100 year old bridge design decisions,” Jeff said.
Meanwhile the deadline looms for one property owner to sell the county a tiny piece of land (.03 acres) which is required for the project. They’re holding off for now, for “leverage” said Carl. But the county could ultimately play their ace-card, Carl acknowledged: taking the land piece by eminent domain.
Schnell said the county would prefer not to use that tool, and it would be the first use in a long time. “We all have to live in this community and like to work with people as much as possible,” Schnell said.
For now, an uneasy standoff while one more bridge crumb drops into the water below.