The one-way bridge over the North Platte River at Sutherland is a century old, but there is no sign that it will be replaced anytime soon.
Lincoln County Roads Superintendent Jerry Hitchcock said Monday the old bridge might be replaced within six years – that’s the best he could do.
In fact, county officials had to battle to keep the 16-foot-wide bridge eligible for federal and state funds so it could be replaced sometime in the next six years, Commissioner Joe Hewgley said.
Mike Kelly, who farms and ranches on the north side of the bridge, said the bridge serves 100,000 acres in Lincoln County and another 100,000 acres in McPherson County, linking the agriculture economy of the area, carrying trucks, school kids as well as ambulances.
With due respect, Kelly said the bridge has been on the county’s six-year plan for 28 years. He fears someday the bridge will be closed before a new one is built.
Hitchcock said the bridge was nearly replaced four years ago. It was third on the waiting list for federal funds, but then the way federal funds are distributed was changed, and the waiting list was rewritten.
Hitchcock and Hewgley said a new bridge would cost nearly $3 million, making it unaffordable for the county. And, Hitchcock said state and federal funds are unpredictable, so the county cannot float a bond that is financed by future funds from the state and federal government.
The Nebraska Department of Roads took over the distribution of federal highway funds in the state four years ago. NDOR keeps 20 percent of the federal money for administration.
Hitchcock said the NDOR also began rating bridges based on deficiences and sufficiences. NDOR intended to fund repairs to bridges with a 70-foot span, but there were too many of them, so they changed to 100 feet and still have too many.
He said the Sutherland Bridge nearly dropped off the state list entirely, because the state rated it structurally stable, thanks in part to the historic style of arch construction.
But Hitchcock said wood supports are involved too, and inspectors took a closer look at pilings underwater and found problems, including a six-inch settlement near the north end, creating a gap in support near the deck.
Hewgley said both he and Hitchcock brought that to attention of the NDOR, and the bridge is now back in line for state funds. How long it will take to get funding is unknown.
“I would love to say it will done within six years,” Hitchcock said when Kelly asked directly, "How soon?"
Sutherland School Superintendent Dan Keyser and McPherson County farmer and rancher Ken Kennedy also urged the commissioners and Hitchcock to replace the bridge.
“There are days when you have to start across the (one-way) bridge without seeing the other end,” Kennedy said. “It’s a huge safety issue.”