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County scrambling to find cash to replace old bridges
Seventh Street Bridge
The Seventh Street Bridge between Modesto and Ceres is one of the oldest in Stanislaus County and is in need of replacement. The county doesn’t have enough money so is attempting to secure funding sources that include Uncle Sam. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Stanislaus County has some of the oldest bridges in the state, supervisors were told recently, and finding the money to replace them will prove challenging over the next several decades.

County Director of Public Works Dave Leamon gave the Board of Supervisors an update on bridge replacements at its meeting of Jan. 12, highlighting completed replacement, current projects and future projects.

“We have the largest antique bridge collection, by percentage, in the state,” said Leamon in jest. “Nobody argues with me. I don’t know if that’s factual but I like saying it.

“We have a ton of bridges that we know we’re going to have to replace in the next 20 to 30 years and if you look at trying to replace one or two bridges a year, that means 25 to 50 years to replace those bridges. So it’s going to take us a long time.”

The county owns 218 bridges over mostly canals and rivers that average 73 years in age. A total of 109 bridges are 82 years or older and should be replaced within the next two decades, Leamon said. Thirteen bridges – including the South Seventh Street Bridge in south Modesto – are over a century old.

He started out his report illustrating a pony truss bridge on Cooperstown Road that was made of steel manufactured by Carnegie Steel which sold out to U.S. Steel before World War I. The bridge apparently was placed in eastern Stanislaus County 60 years ago, however.

Finding the money to replace those aging bridges will not be an easy task. The county has 21 active bridge projects in the federal Highway Bridge Program and has about 450 miles of roads eligible for program funding that are eligible for funding. The program calls for 11.47 percent local match but with only $250 million available each year, Leamon said the program is “oversubscribed and highly impacted.”

“For those big bridges between $15 million and $20 million – with LA County to Alpine County, we all share that same pot of money – that’s not a lot of money to go around for bridges.”

Currently the county is replacing the Waterford-Hickman Bridge spanning the Tuolumne River at a cost of $17.7 million.

In 2020 the county finished the Santa Fe Avenue Bridge spanning the Tuolumne River northwest of Hughson. The seismic retrofit project next to Lakewood Memorial Park cost $14.3 million and was made wider than the old bridge.

“This one is much better and should last us a hundred years or better,” he said.

The counties of Stanislaus and San Joaquin also last year finished the McHenry Avenue Bridge spanning the Stanislaus River.

The bridge on Tegner Road going over Turlock Irrigation District Lateral canal #5 was finished in 2019 at a price-tag of $1.066 million.

A bridge replacement on Schiells Road over the CCID main canal completed in 2010 cost $1.57 million.

Leamon expressed hope represented in the Schell Road Bridge replacement because of a pre-manufactured structure that costs only $250,000 span. He explained that $250,000 is typically the cost to get through the environment studies phase and if successful, the county will replicate the process in replacing aging bridge canals.

“The vast majority of our bridges are 20- to 30-foot little canal bridges so if we can replace them for $250,000 apiece we can get a lot more done than spending that on a study,” said Leamon.

One of the largest projects where funding needs to be addressed is the replacement of the 1916 Seventh Street Bridge, or the Lions Bridge, in south Modesto.

Depending on financing, replacing the bridge is expected to occur starting in 2023 at an approximate cost of $50 million. Because the cost is over $20 million, the federal government will expect reimbursement from the county and the city of Modesto over time. Leamon said the county and Caltrans are working on a “high cost bridge” funding agreement.

“We do not have $50 million in our (public works) reserve …. we’re good through the right-of-way phase; we have money for the next few years but when we need to advance construction there’s another conversation we’re going to have to have on how we pay a contractor because a contractor won’t come and build a bridge on IOUs. They’re gonna want to be paid so we’ll figure it out.”

The historic Lions Bridge has only been able to remain in service to carry 16,000 vehicles per day because of temporary reinforcements under its 1,100-foot span. One of the longest in the region, the bridge is the joint responsibility of the county and the city of Modesto. In 1979 the city installed “temporary” steel supports across some of the spans. He also showed a photo of the underneath of the bridge bearing wooden supports to absorb shock because of missing concrete. He blamed the deficit “because about a hundred trucks went over a weight restricted bridge of four tons because Caltrans closed the ramp on Crows Landing in 1999 and so it was supported by air.”

Leamon illustrated the narrowness of the Seventh Street Bridge with a photo of a woman crossing in lane of traffic in a motorized wheelchair which displaced traffic over into the opposing lane. One side of the new bridge will be designed for a 10-foot-wide sidewalk to accommodate the heavy pedestrian traffic that moves over it.

Beside the Waterford-Hickman Bridge, under construction are bridges on Crows Landing Road, Keyes Road over the Ceres Main Canal, Gilbert Road over the TID Main Canal, and Schell Road.

Money is lined up to replace the St. Francis Bridge over the Modesto Irrigation District canal; and the now-closed Pleasant Valley wooden bridge over the SSJID canal.

Supervisor Vito Chiesa of Hughson asked for the update, and remarked that the county now receives more funding for roads because of the increase in the state gas tax and car registration fees in SB 1 and local passage of Measure L. Previously the county only received about $13 million per year to maintain 1,500 miles of roadways and 218 bridges “and the money didn’t go very far and that’s been about doubled, more or less.”

“The success that you’ve had in pulling down monies and being ready, along with our former director Matt Machado, is really exemplary,” Chiesa told Leamon.

Old Lions bridge 2
Dating back to the 1910s, the Seventh Street Bridge is known as the Lion Bridge and carried about 16,000 vehicles per day between Ceres and Modesto.