13 INVESTIGATES: How Safe are Our Bridges? - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: How Safe are Our Bridges?

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When we recently toured the lowest scoring bridges across our area one in particular prompted us to probe a little further.

Remember the Leeds bridge at Cogbil Street with the shaky railing?

For Diane Smith's neighborhood of about a dozen families, it is their only way out and the only way in for emergency vehicles.     

"The bridge is unsafe.  We're afraid to come across it.  We have to pull our garbage cans all the way on the other side of the bridge for garbage to pick up.  Fire trucks can't come across it, ambulances can't come across it.  I mean if something happens down here, we're in trouble," Smith pointed out.

The 76 year old bridge spanning the Little Cahaba River is ‘structurally deficient', which means it is one of 50 Jefferson County bridges that fall under that substandard qualification.

In fact, its sufficiency score, used to calculate a bridge's overall viability, stands at a 7.2 out of 100.

Kevin Fouts works for the City of Leeds, whose responsibility it is to maintain the bridge.

He admitted the bridge has safety issues.

"It's basically got two I-beams that carry the deck, one of the members has a critical fracture," Fouts said.

Fouts claimed the beam could eventually fail, causing the bridge to fall into the creek.

Fouts provided us with an August 2008 inspection report.

It shows a diagram of the bridge and the inspector's handwritten note, which stated,"There is approximate 1/4-to-1/2 inch crack along top of encased stringer number two."

George Conner is the Maintenance Bureau Chief with the Alabama Department of Transportation.

He claims the most accurate sign of a bridge's safety goes beyond its classification or sufficiency score.

"The best indication for whether a bridge is safe or unsafe is if we've determined that it needs to be restricted for weight.  There are weight posted signs at that bridge," Conner said.

The Cogbil Street Bridge falls into that category, but its weight warnings are a bit confusing.

From the south end of the bridge there is a five ton limit sign.

The north end bridge warning is set at three tons.

So does the maximum weight the bridge can handle depend on which direction you're driving?>

When we asked Fouts if he could explain why the weight limit signs were different at each end of the bridge, he responded, "Not really.  Over the course of folks staying on top of things.  I know it was, it had a 'D' rating.   They lowered the classification of the weight it could carry.  Sounds like it is an oversight of the Public Works Department making the signs match.  We will have to replace the signs to what the rating is."

So what is the right weight limit?

Fouts found a 2008 form which sets the weight limit for the Cogbil Street Bridge at five tons.

That is enough to support a small van-style ambulance at 3.5 tons, which Fouts says is the type of ambulance the City of Leeds uses.

However, it is too weak for a 12 ton fire truck or 12.5 ton loaded school bus.

The bigger question is, what is going to be done to fix the bridge itself?

Fouts said they believe it would cost about $250,000 to replace the bridge.

Instead, they plan to spend between $70,000-$120,000 to put in a new access road and close the bridge for good.

"The city has the property and already done some work to clear the property.  It's down to engineering, drawing it out and working some easement issues with a neighboring property owner," Fouts concluded.

Diane Smith said the proposed access road would run right by her property.

She is in favor of the proposal, but has been waiting on city hall to solve the bridge problem for many years.

We asked her if the city doing enough to insure its safety.

"I don't think so.  They keep telling me they're in the works of getting us a new road.

But that's been going on now for five years," Smith replied.

The City of Leeds claims it hopes to finish the access road in the next two years.

We also uncovered some good news about three dozen other area bridges.

There are currently 38 bridges in nine Central Alabama counties which have been approved to be repaired or replaced through a federal funding program called ATRIP.

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