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Photo by Public Works Department, Barton Springs Road Bridge

Some Austin bridges need major repairs yet lack project funding

Tuesday, March 8, 2022 by Willow Higgins

Before you drive or walk across a bridge, it’s safe to assume that the structure is in good shape and will support your weight as you cross it. Austinites have the Public Works Department and the Texas Department of Transportation to thank for that sense of security. Every two years, TxDOT inspects all major Austin bridges spanning 20 feet or more so that the city can plan and execute any necessary repairs. According to the Public Works Department’s State of City of Austin Bridges biennial report, most spans are in very good standing, but a select few need major repairs and the city is facing a budget gap to pay for them.

The recently released report, which rated the standing of Austin’s 452 major bridges, noted that the average condition of an Austin bridge is “very good.” But many of the bridges are old, and they weren’t designed to last forever. About 30 percent have already outlasted their anticipated life expectancy of 50 years, although new bridges are built to last longer.

While the city doesn’t have any bridges in “poor” condition, the report highlighted five major bridges in need of major rehabilitation or repair, including the iconic Barton Springs Road bridge that crosses Barton Creek.

“​​Having all of Austin’s major bridge structures in fair or better condition represents a successful bridge management program,” reads the memo, which was released by Richard Mendoza, the director of Public Works. “However, we must sustain our current annual bridge maintenance program and plan for future replacement and rehabilitation capital reinvestments to protect these critical infrastructure assets.”

Although each of the five highlighted bridges of concern have various issues to address and a range of price tags, each needs to be completely rebuilt or significantly worked on within the next five years. The most costly project is the Redbud Trail bridge over Lady Bird Lake, which includes completely replacing two bridge structures that have been standing for almost 75 years. The replacement is anticipated to cost a whopping $54 million, which was secured by a 2018 bond package. 

The second-largest project is the Barton Springs Road bridge, which is projected to cost $36 million. This project is in its initial phases, and engineers aren’t sure yet if the “old, obsolete” structure will require a complete replacement or just rehabilitation, according to the report. Funding for the design and construction hasn’t been secured.

The other three major projects include the Delwau Lane bridge over Boggy Creek, a $12 million project to completely replace the bridge, as it has been repeatedly damaged in various floods; the ​​William Cannon Drive railroad overpass, a $6 million project to replace the walls on the ends of the bridge, for which design funding has been secured but construction funding has not; and the Slaughter Lane railroad overpass, a $6 million project similar to the one on William Cannon, although no funding has been identified for the project.

Public Works is also in charge of rehabilitating and replacing pedestrian bridges. These are usually more affordable projects, ranging from $400,000 to $1 million depending on the scale and scope. The report includes a list of five pedestrian bridges that require immediate attention, including structures on Barton Parkway and a bridge between Sparks Avenue and 31st Street. 

Maintaining and replacing bridges as they age isn’t cheap. The report estimates that 1 percent of bridges need to be replaced every year to keep the oldest structures safe and usable. That would cost $20 million annually, yet the city’s allocated funding for bridge maintenance and replacement only totals about $4 million each year.

“We will soon be facing an annual bridge funding gap in the range of $16 million per year,” the report concludes.

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