Building bridges

Fergus County challenged by ongoing bridge repair needs
News-Argus Managing Editor
Friday, October 4, 2019
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Fergus County Road and Bridge Supervisor John Anderson points to part of the bridge over Dog Creek where work is needed. Anderson’s department spent the summer replacing or repairing seven bridges across the county.

Photo by Deb Hill


Although most people know the County is responsible for nearly 1,500 miles of roads, they might be surprised to learn the County is equally responsible for the bridges on those roads – 120 of them. 

The work of keeping county bridges in good repair falls to Road and Bridge Supervisor John Anderson, who offers this little known statistic: among all Montana counties, Fergus is second only to Yellowstone in the number of bridges. 

While the county maintains the bridges, it is the state that inspects them. This year Anderson and his crews have spent quite a bit of time on bridge repairs in response to state concerns.

“We got a letter from the state that said the bridge over Dog Creek wasn’t safe,” Anderson said. “We had to get it fixed immediately. Luckily we had all the material we needed in stock, and we had the bridge rebuilt in three weeks time.”

That was in May. Shortly after that, Anderson’s crews were working to repair two bridges at Grass Range when another letter arrived regarding the Elk Creek Bridge, and then another letter about two bridges in the Denton area.

Altogether, since April, Anderson has overseen the repair of seven bridges.

“About 50 percent of our time is spent on bridge repair, and the other 50 percent on road maintenance,” Anderson said. “Many of our bridges are 50 years old or older, and we are working our way through the list.”

Fergus County is responsible for all bridges in the county, including those within the City of Lewistown.  Potentially that is a lot of bridge work.

“I was lucky that we [the County] had a large stockpile of material we could use. That helped us to get the repairs done quickly,” Anderson said. “And any time I have money in my budget, I buy wood.”

The wood Anderson refers to is treated fir planks, 4 by 12s in 20-foot lengths, which he gets from Washington state.

“Fir is the strongest,” Anderson said. “You can’t get a good, knot-free, treated board in Montana so I have to go out of state.”

Each plank costs $100, and a semi load of them sets the County back $22,000. A load of bridge pilings is $21,000.

Just replacing one bridge, with the cost of material and labor, is a big hit for Anderson’s budget. These days, however, he must also consider building a better bridge than what he is replacing.

“Thirty to 40 years ago, if you made a 20-foot-wide bridge, everything [every vehicle] could cross it,” Anderson said. 

But today’s larger trucks require a wider bridge. 

“Now we try to go to 24 feet wide,” Anderson added.

Sometimes a bridge is in such bad shape there’s nothing that can be done to repair it, and it needs to be completely replaced. This is the case with a bridge on Forest Grove Road just east of Beckett.

“We’ll bid this project this winter, and do it next year,” Anderson said. 

“Doing it” means building a bypass road, including using a railroad car as a temporary bridge; then tearing out the old bridge and replacing it. In the case of the Beckett bridge, the price tag will be upwards of $500,000, Anderson said. Luckily the County received a Treasure State Endowment Fund grant to help with the cost.

Much of the work on bridges requires outside labor, such as gravel hauling, concrete work or driving pilings. None of that is cheap.

“We don’t have a crane or a pile driver,” Anderson said. “It can cost us as much as $20,000 just to pound 12 pilings.”

But Mother Nature, it seems, does not appreciate the cost or work involved in bridge building. Floods and high water events seem to hit one or more of Fergus County’s bridges every year. A case in point is the bridge over Ross Fork Creek on Tognetti Road, where this spring’s runoff removed previously installed rip rap (large rocks) and landscape fabric around the bridge abutments.

“If we’re going to have a problem, it’s going to be Ross Fork Creek. We’ve hauled in 15 loads so far of Class 2 and Class 3 riprap,” Anderson said Wednesday, as he met with his equipment operator to discuss how to proceed. 

Class 2 means using rocks of 2 feet in diameter, and Class 3 is three-foot boulders.

“We need to use larger than what we had there, as it just washed out,” Anderson said. 

He is also hoping to work on bank stabilization, including one bank where the creek seems determined to undermine a large vintage barn on the Hudson property. Currently Anderson is waiting for consensus between the Soil Conservation Service and Fish, Wildlife and Parks for how to proceed. 

In addition to all the bridge work, Anderson said he just purchased $30,000 worth of culverts that need to be installed on Surenuff Road, and there are seven cattle guards he needs to redo.

“We have 13 people working on 1,500 miles of road,” Anderson said. “Every time we think we’re caught up and all is okay, we get something like a letter from the state.”

Despite the stress, and sometimes lack of understanding from residents, Anderson said he still enjoys his job, even after 36 years.

County Commissioner Sandy Youngbauer said the County is committed to renewing the road infrastructure.

“It comes at a cost,” Youngbauer said. “The cost of repairing or replacing bridges is part of our capital improvement plan. However we are often hampered by weather. When we can’t have our crews on the roads, we use them to help improve the fairgrounds. For example, they removed the horse barn where the wind blew the roof off, and they also poured a concrete pad for the new wash station.”



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