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Does Butte County have a new potential bridge rehab funding source?

October 22, 2018 GMT

BUTTE COUNTY — A new federal bridge grant program is offering counties within rural states a chance at a piece of a $225 million pie to fund necessary bridge repairs, something of which Butte County is in dire financial need.

The Federal Highway Administration announced in early September the opportunity for rural states to compete for $225 million in Competitive Highway Bridge Program (CHBP) grants.

By law, the funds are restricted to states with a population density of less than 100 people per square mile. Twenty-five states qualify, including South Dakota. Other states that qualify are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

The funds must be used for highway bridge replacement or rehabilitation projects on public roads that leverage the efficiencies associated with “bundling” at least two highway bridge projects into a single contract. According to the administration’s press release about the program, “bundling projects will relieve rural bridge owners of administrative burden and capitalize on buying in bulk which will make it easier for bridge repairs or replacement projects to begin.”

Congress funded the CHBP grant program in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, from the U.S. Treasury’s General Fund.

Jason Hanson, with Brosz Engineering, the county’s contracted engineering firm, told the commission during Tuesday’s meeting that each state can submit only three applications for the entire state, and the program encourages and gives bundled projects priority consideration.

The state DOT, he said, already has one of the three applications it plans to submit selected, leaving two slots open for South Dakota.

“What they’re looking for are multiple bridges that show a cost benefit to the city, county, whatever,” Hanson said, adding that packaged or bundled projects have a higher likelihood for success.

“The catch is that the application process is pretty extensive … the state is not going to even do its own application; they’re hiring a consultant to put theirs together,” he said.

A consultant to help the county compile and submit an application is likely in the range of $30,000, Hanson said, and the risk would be on the county.

“If you guys do choose to go that way, (and) they do the application, you still run the risk that you don’t get chosen,” he said.

The grant, if awarded, would fund 80 percent of the project, requiring the county to front 20 percent.

“Now keep in mind, you can package together,” Hanson said. “Say you want to go in with Lawrence County and Meade County and maybe Perkins County with six, seven, eight bridges in one package deal.”

That way, Hanson said, the cost of the grant application gets spread amongst all the counties who pool in one application.

“The state (DOT) is probably going to get one for sure,” Hanson said. “Someone over East River is probably going to try and put a package together. There’s potential to do one out west, too.”

Hanson advised the commission to consider contacting area counties to gauge interest in going in on a bundled application together.

“If we can do that then I think it’s probably worth going after,” he said. “There’s only so many rural states that even qualify for this program, and that’s a huge chunk of money sitting there available.”

Commissioner Stan Harms agreed.

“I don’t think we should consider it as just Butte County, but if we could get in a compact (agreement) with four or five counties and get a big enough package, the state might be interested in making it one of their (selections); I would think it would be better to consider going along with that,” he said.

The potential funding opportunity, Hanson said, would likely be dispersed in the range of 2022-23.

The grant deadline is Dec. 4.

According to a 2015 report, one in five of the county’s bridges is in desperate need of repair or replacement, and another 20 bridges are not far behind. In other words, of the county’s 100 bridges, half of them are in need of almost immediate attention.

For the last three years, the county has participated in the Bridge Improvement Grant (BIG) program through the state of South Dakota for major rehabilitation and structure replacement.

To get a piece of the $9 million pie awarded annually for bridge and road repairs, counties are required to create and maintain a five-year road and bridge plan delineating proposed county road and bridge improvement plans.

The county opted not to apply for any BIG funds for 2019.

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