There are a few exceptions to a federal law that allow counties to use their own crews on bridge projects, state and federal transportation officials told Phelps County Commissioners earlier this wee

There are a few exceptions to a federal law that allow counties to use their own crews on bridge projects, state and federal transportation officials told Phelps County Commissioners earlier this week.
Planning engineers Kenny Voss, of the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), and Scott Bowles, of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), explained the law and exceptions during Tuesday's commission meeting.
The two men were invited to discuss if county forces can be used to construct new bridges and use federal money to pay for the needed materials.
Counties have been instructed to obligate their Bridge Replacement Off System (BRO) funds because there is a concern that the federal government will take them away if they aren't used.
"That (BRO money) works great for major bridge projects ... but we have an awful lot of places where there are low-volume roads and low-water crossings," said Presiding Commissioner Randy Verkamp, "and we want to use the BRO funds to attack those problems but use our own forces."
Verkamp said many of the county's low-water crossings that need replaced only carry 200 vehicles per day and it doesn't make economical sense to build bridges there that may cost a half to three-quarters of a million dollars.
District Two Commissioner Gary Hicks added, "We don't want to use all of our BRO funds on one small bridge."
Verkamp said he feels large contractors from other parts of the state would not want to bid on work for small structures, such as the low-water crossings in Phelps County that need replacing.
Voss noted that the way federal law is written, competitive bids must be sought for BRO projects, but there are some exceptions in which a county could use its own forces instead.
Among the exceptions are if bids are requested and no bids are received or no "good" bids are received or in certain emergency situations.
However, Voss warned that if the county were to make a case for an emergency situation, as they plan to do on the County Road 7050 bridge that failed in July and failed again during the August floods, the step to select qualified consultants could not be skipped.
Voss said he understands counties' situations and that oftentimes, county officials have a difficult time coming up with a local match on BRO projects.
He noted that in some cases, the in-kind match that counties contribute by performing road surface work on the approaches to a new bridge, landscaping work or demolition of the existing structure instead of money.
Voss noted that federal law also states that under BRO projects, contractors must follow certain rules, such as wage rates that county forces and even MoDOT crews would not have to follow if they performed the work instead of a contractor.
Another concern that many county officials across Missouri share is that the process to hire a qualified consultant on a bridge project takes a lot of time and money.
Voss said MoDOT is working on creating an on-call list that would include qualified consultants that county officials could pick from to speed up the process. That is expected to be available by April 2014, Voss said. This is similar to the Bridge Engineering Assistance Program (BEAP).
Hicks noted that if the county uses BRO funds to replace bridges, certain specifications must be met, such as bringing the bridge and approaches out of the floodplain, which can significantly raise the cost of new crossings.
Voss said each project could be looked at on a case-by-case basis. "A 100-year flood design doesn't make sense for a road with a volume of 50 cars a day," Voss said.
Bowles also noted that if the county has several low-water crossings that are similar, county officials could package several of them together to seek bids on a larger project that may entice larger contractors from other parts of the state to submit a bid.
A "cookie-cutter" design could be created that could be used on all of the bridges, it was noted.
All three commissioners thanked Voss and Bowles for speaking with them in person.