Are Valley bridges safe?Published: 6/30/13 @ 12:01
By PETER H. MILLIKEN | firstname.lastname@example.org
Hundreds of substandard highway bridges in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys illustrate the gravity of the looming national crisis of structurally deficient bridges.
Replacing them would require a substantial financial commitment, said Mahoning County Engineer Patrick Ginnetti, who estimates it would cost $15 million to $20 million to replace just the structurally deficient bridges he’s responsible for.
“Hopefully it doesn’t take another bridge collapse to get more funding made available to us,” Ginnetti said.
“More funding. That’s all it comes down to,” said Gary Shaffer, an engineer in the Trumbull County Engineer’s Office.
Trumbull County’s ability to afford bridge replacements is restricted by its ability to meet the 20 percent local share of projects that are 80 percent federally funded, he said.
“The county’s been picking away at the worst ones,” said Raymond M. Repko, an engineer with MS Consultants Inc. of Youngstown, Trumbull County’s bridge consultant.
In its long-range plan, Trumbull plans to replace at least two bridges a year through 2030, Shaffer said. The county has been ranked fourth worst among Ohio’s 88 counties in percentage of bridges rated deficient.
“The bridge problem is just one component of our national infrastructure critical need,” which also includes maintenance of road, water and sewer systems, said Bert Dawson, Columbiana County engineer. “Congress has not faced up to its responsibility to adequately fund American infrastructure,” he added.
The Federal Highway Administration has said $20.5 billion would have to be spent annually to eliminate the country’s bridge deficiencies by 2028, but only $12.8 billion is now being spent for this purpose.
“We will stay on top of all of our bridges. We will continually inspect them and make sure that they are safe for the traveling public,” Ginnetti said.
“When we prioritize our bridge projects, we first see what we can do to rehab or adjust the dead load,” said Randy Partika, Mahoning County bridge engineer, referring to excess asphalt on the bridge deck as the “dead load.” That strategy allows the county to buy time before it needs a costly bridge replacement.
Partika said he plans to use that strategy on the deteriorating 1925-vintage bridge that carries an average of 1,880 vehicles a day along Walker Mill Road over Yellow Creek in Boardman.
When the road is repaved this year, he’ll reduce the depth of the bridge- deck asphalt from 7 inches to 2 inches to reduce bridge-deck weight and thereby allow truck-weight limits, which are now reduced on that two-lane, 80-foot bridge, to return to normal.
This structurally deficient bridge is the only one in the Mahoning County engineer’s jurisdiction with reduced vehicle-weight limits, Partika said.
During the asphalt-reduction process, a waterproofing fabric will be added to the bridge deck to reduce water and road-salt penetration through cracks in the deck and thereby slow the deterioration on the underside of the bridge, Partika said.
“There are large areas of concrete spalling [peeling] on the bottom side of the deck,” Partika said. “There are reinforcing bars that go through the concrete. That bottom layer of reinforcing bars is exposed, and they’re rusting,” he explained.
“This bridge will probably go at least another 10 years to maybe 20 years before it’s even below [normal] legal load by taking the dead load off,” Partika said.
“We should be able to get 20 to 30 years of life out of this bridge,” before it has to be replaced, unless a truck hits it, Ginnetti said.
“That’s a cost-effective measure, and it solves the problem,” Ginnetti said of Partika’s approach.
Partika said he’ll use the same strategy of milling off excess asphalt to reduce deck weight at a bridge carrying a daily average of 3,800 vehicles along Four Mile Run Road in Austintown over Four Mile Run. That bridge has the same concrete spalling problem on the underside of its deck as the Walker Mill Bridge, he said.
“Our goal is to spend as little money as possible to keep them the legal load,” Partika said of the county’s bridges. The county spends about $400,000 a year on maintenance of its 290 bridges, of which 43 are structurally deficient.
At the structurally deficient Lowellville Road Bridge carrying a daily average of 3,000 vehicles over Yellow Creek in Struthers, Partika said rapidly rusting beams will be sandblasted and painted late this year or early next year to arrest the deterioration.
That bridge is undergoing deck-surface and sidewalk replacement, part of a $385,000 rehabilitation project.
Mahoning is fortunate voters passed a $25 million bridge bond levy in 1986 to help it meet bridge replacement needs, but that levy expired about five years ago, Partika said. “The county and the city of Youngstown were able to parlay it into over $120 million of federal matching funds to replace over 100 bridges,” Partika added.
Neither Trumbull County, which has 378 bridges under the county engineer’s jurisdiction, nor Columbiana County, where that number is 285, have had such a levy.
Of those bridges in the Trumbull County engineer’s jurisdiction, 13 percent were in poor condition, 50 percent in fair to good condition, and 37 percent in very good or excellent condition in 2012, according to that year’s annual report from the county engineer’s office.
Factors Mahoning County uses to prioritize deficient bridges for replacement include whether a bridge has a vehicle-weight reduction, whether traffic is being restricted and the volume of traffic the bridge carries, Partika said. “We’re more apt to spend money on bridges that carry 10,000 cars a day then 200 cars a day,” he observed.
He noted that only one Mahoning County bridge ranks in the top 500 bridges on a prioritized statewide list of spans needing replacement that was prepared by the County Engineers’ Association of Ohio, and that the $30 million in federal funding available annually is enough to replace only 50 on that statewide list annually.
That county bridge, which ranks 472nd on that list, carries a mere 100 vehicles a day along Garfield Road over the Middle Fork of Little Beaver Creek in Beaver Township, he said. Its deck and superstructure have a rating of 4 on a scale of 0 to 9.
A 4 rating means the bridge meets minimum standards to be kept in position as is.
At the Garfield Road Bridge, the shoulder is closed, keeping traffic to the middle of the road, to keep weight off a deteriorated outside beam that is one of nine steel beams supporting the bridge, Partika said.
That prioritized statewide list contains several Columbiana County bridges and numerous Trumbull County bridges among the top 500.
Trumbull ranks fourth among the 88 Ohio counties, and Lawrence County ranks fourth among the 67 Pennsylvania counties in the percentage of bridges within each county that are rated structurally deficient. Shaffer said he did not know why his county rates so poorly.
Eighty-five of Trumbull County’s 406 bridges are rated as structurally
deficient, meaning 20.9 percent of that county’s bridges are substandard.
In Lawrence County, 112 of 257 bridges are substandard, for a total of 43.6 percent.
In the other local counties, the figures are: 95 of 431 Mercer County, Pa., bridges are deficient for a 22-percent deficiency rating; 48 of 371 in Mahoning County, for 12.9 percent; and 36 of 331 in Columbiana County, for a total of 10.9 percent.
Those totals add up to 376 deficient bridges in the five-county area as reported by Transportation for America, a Washington-D.C.-based transportation reform coalition.
Columbiana County’s strategies to prolong bridge life and save money include having its own in-house crew perform routine bridge maintenance, installing pre-cast concrete beam bridges that don’t require painting and other intensive maintenance, and using rust-resistant steel in bridge construction and rehabilitation, Dawson said.
Another strategy employed there is using open-grid grating decks on low traffic rural bridges to reduce bridge deck weight and allow sunlight to penetrate beneath the deck to reduce damaging moisture, he added.
The statistics supplied by the coalition come from the national bridge inventory, a database compiled by the Federal Highway Administration from information supplied by the states. The inventory contains bridges under state, county or municipal jurisdiction and some that are privately owned.
The entire state of Pennsylvania, where the average age of bridges is 53 years, ranks first in the nation, with 5,906 of its 22,271 bridges rated deficient, meaning 26.5 percent of all its bridges are substandard.
Pennsylvania, whose harsh winters take their toll on roads and bridges, has the nation’s fifth-largest state-owned road system and the third-largest number of state-owned bridges in the nation, said Jim Carroll, a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation press officer.
“Even as we replace and rehabilitate bridges to remove them from the structurally deficient list, other aging bridges are deteriorating and are being
added to that list,” Carroll said. “Currently, we focus on rehabilitation and waterproofing efforts, whenever possible, to help preserve and add years to the service life of existing bridges,” he added.
“For many years, there was an underinvestment in bridges in Lawrence County,” Carroll said, explaining why so many Lawrence County bridges are deficient.
He said PennDOT spent $139 million on state-owned bridges in Lawrence County between 2008 and 2013, however, reducing the structurally
deficient deck rate from 48 percent to 21 percent.
Despite that investment, several heavily traveled, structurally deficient bridges continue to span the Shenango River in Lawrence and Mercer counties.
In Ohio, where the average age of bridges is 43 years, 9.8 percent of bridges are deficient. With 2,743 of its 27,963 bridges deficient, Ohio ranks 29th in the nation.
The average life expectancy of a bridge is 50 years, the coalition said.
Nationally, 68,842 of 599,996 bridges are substandard, for an 11.5 percent deficiency rate, and the average age of bridges is 42 years.
In bridge inspections, a rating of 0 to 9 is given to three key components: the deck over which traffic crosses; the superstructure, which supports the deck; and the substructure, where the bridge meets the ground.
Bridges are classified as deficient under federal standards if any one of the three components gets a rating of 4 or less.
Failure to maintain, rehabilitate or replace structurally deficient bridges can result in vehicle-weight restrictions, sudden closure, or even a bridge collapse, the coalition notes.
Truckers’ failure to observe weight or height limits also have caused memorable bridge collapses here and elsewhere in the country.
In Youngstown, trucks that far exceeded posted 10-ton bridge weight limits caused the June 1972 collapse of the Credit Mobilier Bridge over the Mahoning River at the Ohio Works of U.S. Steel Corp., and the February 1984 collapse of a bridge over Lincoln Park on the city’s East Side. Neither bridge was replaced.
Three people were hurt, but there were no fatalities in the 1984 collapse, which sent the truck, a car and three people plunging 70 feet into the Dry Run Creek gorge.
In August 2007, an Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis dumped 100 vehicles into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people and injuring 145.
On May 23 this year, one span of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit
River at Mount Vernon, Wash., collapsed when a truck carrying an oversized load hit its steel frame, dumping vehicles into the river. Three people went to local hospitals after being rescued from their cars on the flooded bridge deck after it collapsed into the river, but there were no fatalities.
“Nothing can protect the safest bridge from human error,” such as an overweight or overheight truck driving over it, said Steve Faulkner, press secretary for the Ohio Department of Transportation.
“If a bridge in Ohio is unsafe, we’re going to close it,” Faulkner said. ODOT inspects bridges annually, even though the federal standard calls for inspections every two years, he added. Between 2003 and 2012, ODOT spent $7.4 billion on bridge maintenance.
Locally, the deficient bridges range from those carrying tens of thousands of vehicles daily along major roads to bridges on rural roads carrying 100 or fewer vehicles daily.
Deteriorating conditions forced the October 2009 closure of the 1920-
vintage Olive Street bridge that carried 2,000 vehicles a day over the Mahoning River between McDonald and Niles.
“It is a vital link between those two communities for safety services and just convenience,” Shaffer said of the Olive Street bridge.
“Olive Street was our biggest concern just because of the people that weren’t obeying the load posting, so we had to close that,” Shaffer said.
That bridge’s superstructure was rated 2, its deck, 4, and its substructure, 5. By the time it closed, its weight limit had been reduced to 3 tons.
Shaffer said overweight vehicles were crossing that 933-foot-long bridge before its closing, and his office closed the bridge because it could no longer take a chance on an overweight vehicle collapsing the bridge into the river.
A $7 million replacement of that bridge is planned for next year, said Kathleen Rodi, transportation director at the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments in Youngstown.
The same issue of overweight vehicles plagues the Chestnut Ridge Road bridge over Little Yankee Creek in Hubbard, which might have to close before it can be replaced, Shaffer said. That bridge has a 3-ton weight limit, averages 1,050 vehicles daily, and has a deck and superstructure rating of 3.
“We’re confident, if people obey the signage, we’ll be fine. The concern for public safety comes in when people don’t obey those load postings,”
“We know there are problem bridges in Trumbull County, but we work
diligently to get them replaced, and we do what we can to keep those bridges open until they can be replaced,” Shaffer said.
Currently under replacement in Trumbull County are the Warner Road bridge, which spans a stream on the Fowler-Hartford border, and a bridge over Yankee Creek on Five Points-Hartford Road in Hartford Township. Both new bridges will be open by the end of the summer.
A bridge spanning a stream on Hayes Orangeville Road in Hartford Township recently reopened after replacement.
Shaffer said the Main Street bridge carrying about 5,000 vehicles a day over Walnut Creek in Cortland, where the deck, super and substructures all rate a 4, will also be replaced next year.
He added that his office will use its $1.3 million operating surplus from 2012 toward five bridge replacements next year. Besides the Olive and Main Street bridges, Trumbull County will replace one bridge each next year in Farmington, Kinsman and Mesopotamia townships.
One of the most-visible landmark bridges in the region that is structurally deficient is the Newell Toll Bridge, a 1905-vintage, 1,590-foot-long bridge over the Ohio River connecting East Liverpool, Ohio, with Newell, W. Va.
That privately owned, two-lane cable suspension bridge, which was rehabilitated in 1954, has a rating of 4 on its superstructure and 5 on its deck and substructure. The bridge, which carries an average of 2,000 vehicles per day on its 21-foot-wide deck, has a 10-ton weight limit and is owned and operated by the Newell Co.
A spokesman for the Homer Laughlin China Co. in Newell, whose owners also own that bridge, did not return a call concerning the safety and maintenance plans for that span.