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Caution ahead

Motorists rolling into the Ashland Plaza on North Main Street may not even know they are passing over one of the state's oldest bridges.

The bridge that crosses Ashland Creek between Granite and Water streets was built in 1911.

It's survived virtually every demand from interstate travel to local commutes and flooding. But a new report by the Oregon Department of Transportation has identified the bridge as one of five in Jackson County in need of imminent repair.

ODOT's 2015 Bridge Condition Report suggests the state economy could take a hit if bridges, such as the one in Ashland, aren't adequately maintained. Most of Oregon's 2,700 highway bridges, along with 4,000 county and municipal bridges, were built five or six decades ago. Left to deteriorate over the next 20 years, faltering bridges could cost the state $94 billion in production and 100,000 jobs.

The North Main Street bridge is inspected every two years, ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming said. Last year, it was apparent it was time for general repairs.

"It's just a matter of aging and absorbing all the loads going over it," Leaming said. "I'm surprised the 1996 flood didn't undermine it more.

"It's an example of an important connector, where there would be major impacts to the community if we were to replace," he said.

More than likely the work would be done in phases, requiring detours. If repairs are expedited, it will cost additional money.

When it comes to working in water where fish migrate, ODOT is limited to activity between June 15 and Sept. 15, putting any repair work smack in the middle of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival schedule.

"It would not only impact commerce, but the work would be at the height of the tourist season," Leaming said.

Although the state has poured time and money into bridge rehabilitation during the past dozen years, the forces of nature and human use take their toll. As of now, the report said, one in four state highway bridges have deteriorated enough to need significant repair or replacement. 

According to the report, replacing each state highway bridge over a 100-year period requires replacing an average of 27 bridges annually. At present, the Legislature funds three per year. Bridges typically require major maintenance every 30 to 50 years, but present funding has reduced such work to once a century.

"We're in better shape than we were probably 10 years ago," Leaming said.

Three rounds of Oregon Transportation Investment Act funding addressed small community and rural needs, such as Gold Hill and Jacksonville, as well as bridges on major freight routes.

"But that was only about 10 percent of our bridges," Leaming said.

Not surprisingly, several freeway overpass bridges constructed in 1962 are rated poor by ODOT. East Main Street in Ashland, Valley View Road in Talent, Fern Valley Road in Phoenix and Barnett Road overpasses were all built in 1962. The Fern Valley bridge, however, is being replaced as part of a major Interstate 5 interchange redesign.

In two years, Caveman Bridge, which carries southbound traffic out of Grants Pass, will see its first major overhaul. The bridge, built in 1931, was designed by Conde McCullough, whose work is seen up and down the Oregon Coast.

The report said hundreds of state bridges will deteriorate in coming decades to the point where truck traffic will be restricted. Detours increase transportation costs for Oregon businesses, making them less competitive in national and world markets and costing Oregonians their jobs.

"Bridges, like roadways or any other asset, have a useful life, but that useful life can be extended through regular maintenance," said Mike Montero, who chairs the Rogue Valley Area Commission on Transportation, an ODOT advisory board whose findings are passed on to the Oregon Transportation Commission. "When funds become more scarce, that's when you see deferred maintenance. As a result, bridges are classified as load-restricted or in need of repair. That's not just here in Oregon, that's a circumstance mirrored nationwide."

Montero likens the situation to a family that has to cope with reduced income, and it may put off auto maintenance, such as oil changes and transmission service.

"That will lead to premature failure of the car ... as a consequence of financial limitations," he said.

Among potential results of bridges falling into disrepair is the cost of shipping freight.

"Trucking companies have to decide whether to avoid a stretch of roadway, or think about ability to transact business with a company," Montero said. If load restrictions force transport companies to run partially loaded trucks, customers may balk at paying full price for a half-load.

"They may have to reroute a truck, adding an additional 50 miles," he said. "There will be implications."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/EconomicEdge.

The bridge over Ashland Creek at North Main Street is one of several in poor condition and in need of repair according to a report by the Oregon Department of Transportation. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch