July 2, 2019, 6:45 a.m.
It’s been more than three months since record floods swept through eastern Nebraska. In the process, water and ice damaged large sections of roads and bridges. The Nebraska Department of Transportation is still working to make repairs.
“We’ve been out working since the day the flood hit basically,” said Mark Traynowicz. He’s the Nebraska state bridge engineer. Last week, he spoke with community members at a Department of Transportation flood recovery update meeting in Nebraska City.
The meetings come three months into the recovery process, when some projects are complete and others still need months of work.
Traynowicz says bridge damage in this flood was far larger than other incidents.
“We’ve had 27 bridges across the state that have been damaged from this flood, so it’s a significant event. You know, in a typical flood, we may have one or two state highway bridges that could get damaged. We’ve got six bridges that are completely washed out, we’ve got seven others that have major repairs, and then the rest have more minor repairs. I don’t think people realize it’s such a significant event as it is,” Traynowicz said.
Two locations where bridges were damaged will be getting temporary bridges. One temporary bridge will be installed south of Spencer. The other will be west of Niobrara. The so-called Bailey Bridges were developed for military use, and will be able to handle full weight. They will, however, have width limits in place.
Traynowicz says these temporary structures will only take a single lane of traffic.
“But it establishes the connection again, cause in both locations, you know, it’s a significant detour,” Traynoicz said. “Instead of taking just a few minutes to get across the bridge, it takes over an hour to get around to the other side. We expect these to be installed in both sides in August.”
Kevin Domogalla is the engineer for the Department of Transportation’s District 3, where Niobrara is located. He says having the bridge out from March to August is a big deal.
“Unfortunately the community is impacted greatly based on the connectivity to the west. We’ve got the Niobrara State Park, for instance, is separated from the town of Niobrara, so the impact to that road being closed is great,” Domogalla said.
District 3’s damage isn’t limited to just one bridge, though.
“We had several highways that were affected, but the major damage that occurred happened to seven different bridges throughout northeast Nebraska that continue to be closed,” Domogalla said.
Many of them will be closed for a while.
“Each bridge has a different schedule, a different scope of work, so our goal is to have all the bridges open to traffic by one way or another by the end of the year,” Domogalla said.
That doesn’t mean permanent structures will be in place in 2019. According to the Department of Transportation’s website, the permanent bridge replacement west of Niobrara will open in the summer of 2020.
All these repairs are expensive. The DOT estimates damage to the state highway system from flooding amounts is as much as $146 million. Local roads eligible for federal aid add another $30 million. So far, the DOT has received $25 million in “quick release” federal assistance.
Tom Goodbarn is the district engineer for District 1 for the DOT. His district includes Nebraska City, where he was also part of the flood recovery update meeting. He estimates costs for flood projects around his district.
“Approximately two million dollars up there by Schuyler, and then we’ve had, I think we had $31,000 up there on highway 79, and we’ve had some other work. Some of the costs are traffic signals at Ashland to handle the traffic that diverts around flood damage,” Goodbarn said.
Emergency flood repairs can be covered entirely by federal assistance, and permanent repairs will be reimbursed up to 80% of the cost. However, the repair time will take away from projects previously planned for 2019. Some of those DOT projects may be temporarily postponed.
The Nebraska Department of Transportation also has to think about projects their colleagues in Iowa are working on. Goodbarn says he gets traffic counter data from highway 75, which has seen an increase in traffic due to flooding in Iowa.
“When I-29 opened we dropped about 3,000 cars a day from the traffic going through Auburn. So we’ve got that pinch point at the signal in Auburn, and you’ve had days of up to 12,500 cars going through there, mostly trucks actually. The last 3,000 or so above normal that we’re seeing now are the folks that would normally be using highway 2,” Goodbarn said.
Highway 2 is currently still closed between the Nebraska border and I-29 in Iowa. Goodbarn estimates that section will reopen in the next month to six weeks.
Highway and bridge repairs can seem slow, but Traynowicz, the state bridge engineer, says the department wants to take the time to do things right.
“We don’t want to rush into something and put something up and then something else happens,” Traynowicz said. “So we really do, as much as we want to go fast, we also want to make sure these things are right, and they’re safe. Because that’s always our number one priority, is making sure things are safe in highways in Nebraska.”
Three months into flood recovery, there’s still plenty of work to be done.