C-UCitizenAccess.org: Are county bridges safe?

C-UCitizenAccess.org: Are county bridges safe?

Illinois state inspectors say the bridge carrying traffic on Lake of the Woods Road over Interstate 74 in Mahomet is in "critical condition" and "structurally deficient."

But an average of 2,550 vehicles — including school buses — still use the bridge each day, although the bridge has been reduced to a single traffic lane since August 2011.

Gary LaForge, Mahomet public works director, said he gets phone calls periodically from concerned Mahomet citizens about the bridge's structural integrity.

He tells them the bridge would not remain open if it is unsafe, but he also does not advocate using the bridge.

"I don't drive over it unless I have to," said LaForge, who noted the bridge is finally due for repairs later this year.

The Mahomet bridge is one of at least 32 bridges in Champaign County that state inspectors have deemed structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, according to an analysis of federal transportation data by CU-CitizenAccess.org.

Of those, two dozen are eligible for funding for repairs, but it can take 10 years or more for a bridge to get funding that often reaches into the millions of dollars. The Mahomet bridge is in its sixth year of waiting, while a bridge on Windsor Road in Champaign received the necessary funding this April after a decade.

"Structurally deficient" means a bridge is in poor condition. "Functionally obsolete" means its design is outdated for modern transportation standards and should be updated or replaced. Neither definition means that the bridge is in danger of collapsing and needs to be closed immediately.

Of the 24 Champaign County bridges eligible for repairs, 13 are on or over Interstates 57, 72 or 74. Twelve of the bridges span waterways, including Urbana's Race Street bridge over Boneyard Creek that is currently under construction for its average 2,850 daily drivers. (One bridge, the I-74 span over the Salt Fork near St. Joseph, is counted twice in these two lists.)

Bridges must have a rating of 80 or below out of a possible rating of 100 and must be structurally deficient or functionally obsolete to qualify for repairs. About 3,300 bridges out of roughly 30,600 in Illinois have similar low ratings.

The data analyzed comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration, which gathers bridge data annually from around the country. About 800 Champaign County bridges are included in the data.

Unenforced precautions

Officials acknowledge that many of the measures taken to reduce deterioration of bridges cannot be enforced.

The Illinois Department of Transportation has performed weekly visual inspections of the Mahomet bridge since it was reduced to a single lane, LaForge said. Meanwhile, the department has to trust drivers to obey the lower weight limits that were instituted.

"We can't really police that. I don't know what else we could do," said Kevin Woods, bridge maintenance engineer for Illinois Department of Transportation's District 5. "It's hard to enforce some of that."

Police surveillance, though rare, is an option in extreme circumstances, he said.

On April 17, Gov. Pat Quinn outlined $12.6 billion in a highway construction plan, including $4.4 million to replace and widen the Mahomet bridge in 2014. The state's highway improvement plans are released every year and plan for five years at a time.

Concern over bridge safety re-emerged nationally when the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state collapsed in May. The bridge was not described as structurally deficient in inspections. The bridge was a "fracture critical" bridge, meaning a single component's failure can lead to catastrophic results. Transportation officials suspect a truck hauling drilling equipment struck a bridge truss and caused the collapse. A review of state inspections of Champaign County bridges could find no bridges labeled as fracture critical.

National concern about bridge safety previously peaked in August 2007 when the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis collapsed and killed 13 people. It had been described as structurally deficient in inspections.

Mahomet bridge

The Mahomet bridge spanning I-74 and its average 27,100 daily vehicles is one of the many projects that has appeared year after year on the state's transportation plans.

A recent annual inspection report for the Mahomet bridge was dated Sept. 13, 2012. The overall structural evaluation was described as "intolerable" and a "high priority" for replacement and correction. The columns supporting the bridge's roadway are still listed as in "good condition" with "minor problems."

In spring 2010, the surface of the bridge was crumbling, Woods said. Repairs were made, but deterioration showed up on a different part of the bridge a year later. It was then that the bridge was reduced to a single traffic lane and officials posted weight limitations. It currently has a posted sign limiting traffic to vehicles under 15 tons.

Tim Crawford, director of transportation for the Mahomet-Seymour school district, said he never stopped scheduling bus routes over the bridge. Fully loaded buses usually do not exceed about 10 tons, so safety was never his concern. The increased cost of additional driving time and fuel because of the single lane's slow traffic light were concerning, however.

But on the afternoon of May 20, two Mahomet-Seymour school buses were photographed by CU-CitizenAccess.org using the bridge at the same time.

Crawford is scheduling all of the routes for the coming school year to bypass the bridge in anticipation of the expected construction.

The bridge project is likely to be bid in June, LaForge said. He received word from state Sen. Chapin Rose and the Department of Transportation saying they were able to gather additional funds for the $6.3 million project, which will include a new 10-foot bike lane.

He expects construction to begin in August at the earliest.

Windsor bridge

Construction on the Champaign bridge over I-57 began April 1. Vehicle estimates on the Windsor bridge vary, with federal data estimating 8,700 vehicles per day and state data estimating 11,300.

The state had described the bridge as "intolerable" and a "high priority" for correction and replacement in its inspections, which were done every two years.

A crane being pulled by a semi traveling north on I-57 that hit the Windsor Road bridge and bent a steel beam in May 2012 was what finally motivated the state to approve the project's plans, said David Clark, acting city engineer of Champaign.

"That accelerated the need to get that bridge replaced," he said. "It was at the age that it needed to be fixed."

The $2.4 million Windsor Road bridge project is slated to finish this year. Champaign hopes to begin work on Windsor Road for the two half-mile stretches leading up to the bridge on both sides in April 2014, with the target completion date in September 2014.

The bridge and four others along I-57 in Champaign were part of Illinois' proposed transportation improvement plans for reconstruction and repair in past years. After the recession began, the state's budget diminished. Only the Windsor Bridge received money for repairs.

Roland White, then-city engineer for Champaign, had expressed concern over the quality of the Windsor Road bridge prior to its reconstruction.

"It bothers me, keeps me up at night. I worry about it," he said in an October 2012 News-Gazette article. "I think it's just a matter of time before somebody gets hurt on one of these bridges."

Champaign wanted to incorporate pedestrian and bicycle paths on the bridge as part of its citywide program to accommodate all modes of transportation that began in 2007. Initially, the state simply wanted to replace the bridge as it was, without pedestrian or bike lanes.

Champaign resisted this, especially because of the growing residential area west of the interstate. The state later launched a multipurpose transportation plan similar to that of Champaign and agreed to add a 6-foot bike lane and 5-foot walking path on each side.

"Had we not raised the issue, then the state would've built a bridge for the cars only," Clark said.

This meant a wider bridge and roads approaching it in order to fit the new lanes. The state claimed it was only responsible for the bridge, excluding the ramps that connect the bridge to the roads. The city and state went back and forth debating which was responsible for this, but it was ultimately determined that Champaign must pay for any project outside of the bridge.

Crash forces issue

The city and state were still in discussions when the crash on I-57 expedited the issue and forced the state to decide on a design and prepare the project for bidding in November 2012. The bent steel beam on the south of the Windsor Road bridge weakened the structure enough that the fire department west of the interstate was only allowed to drive its trucks on the north, westbound lane, Clark said.

Champaign had failed to receive a state transportation grant to fund the half-mile-long stretches of Windsor Road extending both east and west of the interstate, including the ramps up to the bridge structure. The city reapplied and was approved for a $1.7 million Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program grant on Jan. 30. The city had hoped to receive this news in October so the city and state projects could bid the two together. The later announcement forced the additional construction season planned for 2014.

"The stars and the moon did not align," Clark said.

The Department of Transportation expects to finish the bridge Nov. 1. A single lane of traffic will remain open throughout the project.

With the department's recent highway improvement plans listing the Mahomet bridge with a single year as a projected finish date and not a range of years, Clark said the project is likely moving forward, though it is not guaranteed.

"Just because this is in (the state's improvement plans) doesn't mean it's going to happen, as we've found out," Clark said.

Jeannie Bland, programming engineer for Illinois' District 5, said the state's decision-making for which projects to fund is almost "purely data-driven. You can't argue with data."

Bridge inspections collect structural evaluation data, which are then processed and ranked in order to "establish a priority ranking of bridge needs" by the state's bridge analysis system, according to a September 2012 state report. The analysis system, developed in the early 1980s, then divides the bridges into acceptable and unacceptable categories.

The Department of Transportation's report found 92.4 percent of state-maintained bridges were in acceptable condition in October 2011, just under the 93 percent goal.

Analysis of federal data shows that about 10 percent of bridges in Illinois are deficient or obsolete and have ratings low enough to qualify them for repairs.

"Currently, all bridges open to traffic on the Illinois state highway system are safe," according to the report.

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