OSWEGO — Law officers responding to complaints recently required farm trucks carrying silage to back off of Wallace Road and find alternate routes to their destinations.
That brought a contingent of farmers to Monday’s Labette County commission meeting to ask questions and seek answers to the issue of weight limits on county bridges and routes around these bridges.
Three bridges on Wallace Road have different weight limits and may restrict truck traffic to the lowest posted limit. One, built in 2009, has weight limits ranging from 31 tons to 100 tons, depending on the metric the county decides to use. It is just north of the Montana community. This bridge doesn’t have a weight limit sign on it. The second bridge, built in 1936, is just north of the curves on Wallace and has a weight limit of 15 to 50 tons. The third bridge, built in 1960, is north of the second bridge and closer to U.S. 400 on Wallace and has a weight limit of 13 to 40 tons. The last two bridges are now posted with the lowest tonnage as a limit.
Kenneth Blair of Cook, Flatt and Strobel Engineers of Topeka spoke to the issue Monday and began with a primer on bridge weight limits and the truck types that operate on roads.
The federal government, which provides transportation funding to states, requires weight limits on bridges, Blair said. The county cannot waive enforcement of these weight limits but the county commission can decide the metric to use to calculate weight limits, Blair said.
A bridge’s load rating also depends on other factors, including age, materials used and if plans for the bridge exist. If no plans are available, an engineer can use her or his judgment to set load ratings.
The load limit can be by inventory or operating ratings. Inventory ratings are lower and will in theory allow the bridge to remain in the county’s inventory indefinitely. That’s as long as drivers obey the weight limit signs. An operating rating increases the load limits, but the downside is this will reduce the life of a bridge.
A bridge weight limit cannot be above the operating rating, Blair said. Most counties use a number between the inventory and operating rating number, and most of these are closer to the inventory rating, he said.
For the bridge built in 2009 on Wallace Road (a three-span structure), the inventory rating ranges from 31 tons for a single axle truck to 60 tons for a double axle truck towing a second trailer with three axles. The operating rating ranges from 51 to 100 tons for these trucks. The bridge built in 1960 has the lowest ton rating, from 13 to 34 tons for the inventory rating and from 25 to 50 tons for the operating rating.
Blair said the county needs to post weight limits on all its bridges. If the bridge weight limit isn’t posted, by law that means that legal loads up to 90,000 pounds can pass over the structure.
He suggested the county begin using weight limit signs that picture three different truck types and the limits for those trucks to help alleviate confusion caused by a weight limit sign with only one weight listed. When the latter signs are used, the limit defaults to the lowest weight limit. Using the bridge built in 1936 as an example, Blair said if it had only one weight limit listed, it would show 15 tons as the limit.
“So it restricts all trucks to 15 (tons). If you put a three truck silhouette sign, it would … give the public some flexibility,” Blair said.
A three vehicle weight limit sign would show 15, 27 and 30 tons for the 1936 bridge and have pictures of the vehicle types to which the corresponding limits apply. These limits reflect the inventory rating for the bridge.
The second weight limit listed on these signs would be for semi trucks most often used in farm operations, he said.
Blair said if the commission decided on using the higher operating ratings for bridges, the bridges would have to be inspected more often.
“If you’re going to post above inventory, you should have a really good inspection system set up, and you shouldn’t do that to bridges that are in poor condition,” Blair said.
He compared setting a weight limit at an operating rating to running a car revved up.
“It just wears the bridge out a lot quicker, and you’re just gonna replace it in your inventory quicker,” Blair said.
Sandy Krider, Public Works director, said the sign department has 10 to 20 blank signs available that could be used for the three-truck silhouette that Blair mentioned. She could order more of these signs if commissioners wanted. The county has some bridges now that have a three-truck silhouette for weight limits.
Commissioner Cole Proehl asked what the issue was. Commissioner Lonie Addis said there is no agriculture exemption for trucks crossing bridges. The county is not allowed to make an exception for agriculture vehicles because the federal government requires weight limits on bridges.
Blair said the only exception he knew of related to interstate bridges and the 90,000 limit on non-posted bridges. Some people have told Blair that they crossed a low weight limit bridge with a heavy truck and nothing happened. Sometimes, the big truck breaks something on the bridge and the next vehicle crossing causes a collapse, he said.
“Eventually, something does happen. We get calls all the time on bridges that collapsed,” Blair said.
He said some in agriculture tend to ignore the weight limit signs if they are too restrictive, and he was pleased that those attending Monday’s meeting expressed concern about how to follow the weight limits on bridges.
Justin Bebb said when his trucks were ordered off Wallace Road he called Krider to find alternate routes from the fields his crews were working. The new routes added miles to get to the feed yard and required the trucks to drive by more family homes, including Amish homes. He said the changes cost $160 per load and about $10,000 for one day in additional freight costs.
Bebb thought the county should let taxpayers know about bridge weight limits and show alternate routes for farmers. He said he did not know that an unposted bridge had a weight limit of 90,000 pounds.
Alan Cole asked how the county would enforce the bridge weight limits. He didn’t think it would be possible for the county to bring all bridges up to specifications that would allow modern farm equipment to cross. He mentioned the approaches to the bridge just west of Labette City on 16500 Road that cause his farm equipment to bounce when he crosses it. He said the bouncing cannot be good for the bridge’s longevity.
Bebb was concerned that the enforcement action was impacting farmers’ income. He said farmers pay taxes, taxes that pay for roads and bridges and commissioners’ salaries. He wanted to know how the county could address their concerns.
County Counselor Brian Johnson said the county cannot give an exemption to heavy farm vehicles to cross county bridges.
Commissioner Terry Weidert said the county is not saying the farmers cannot harvest their crops or sell livestock. Bridges have weight limits. He said the heavier trucks need to avoid bridges or lighten loads so they can cross certain bridges.
“You can still harvest. You just cannot legally go over the bridges,” Weidert said.
Proehl suggested that signs get placed immediately on unmarked bridges and update the other single-weight signs to show three weight limits.
Bryson Shaffer suggested designated detour routes like the Kansas Department of Transportation placed around for the Labette Creek bridge replacement project on U.S. 59.
Bebb said the county may need to hire a dispatcher to answer farmers’ calls on routes around bridges. Some harvests have a time crunch, such as the corn being cut for silage now. He said he knows that law enforcement was doing its job when directing farm trucks off of Wallace Road. He said he heard different answers to his questions during harvest from what he was receiving Monday from commissioners and Blair. People involved in enforcement need to have the right answers, he said.
He suggested commissioners publish information about bridge weight limits and routes around bridges.
Shaffer discussed using a similar route to what Westar Energy used to bring a transformer to the plant on Wallace Road. Krider mentioned that the truck crew had to build a jump bridge over a county bridge on Udall Road because of the weight limit.
One man asked about county trucks and if they are following weight limits on bridges. He claimed that some trucks carry more than the posted weight limit across some bridges. Others agreed.
Weidert said he wished there was an easier fix or that the county could replace two bridges on Wallace Road south of U.S. 400 and then farmers would have a viable harvest route. But bridges are expensive and a state program to pay for bridge work has dried up, Addis said.
When asked what other counties do to address the problem, Blair said some counties issue bonds to build new bridges and others create a sales tax for that purpose.
“It’s a problem everywhere,” Blair said.
“Oh yeah, we want more taxes,” said Tori Dickinson.