Which bridge to cross?

Published 11:13 pm Monday, October 27, 2008

At least 31 bridges in Chilton County have weight limits of 8 tons or less, meaning large vehicles such as school buses, fire trucks and construction equipment cannot cross them, according to an upgraded list from the County Road Department.

The state is in the process of re-rating more than 50 of the county’s bridges, a large percentage of which have been downgraded due to various reasons.

Some of these bridges are nearly 50 years old and were built atop timber substructures, which are starting to show signs of decay and damage. Some have had to be closed because the wood busted under the weight of heavy equipment, Engineer Tony Wearren said.

In light of this information, Wearren said the department’s emphasis is shifting from road paving and resurfacing to bridge repair and replacement, despite the public’s tendency to gravitate toward the former.

“Our county is full of bridges rated so low that emergency vehicles, school buses and construction equipment can’t cross,” he said. “Our emphasis really needs to be on bridges.”

Of the 31 bridges on the list, 22 have a 3-ton weight limit, which is the lowest rating possible. These bridges are just one rating away from being closed to traffic.

“If something happens to a 3-ton bridge, we have no alternative but to close it,” Wearren said. “We are trying to protect these bridges until we get them replaced, but there is a large number.”

These bridges are located on county roads 441, 334, 455, 46, 2, 425, 354, 232, 340, 262, 822, 199, 486, 515, 447, 339, 214, 228, 597, 151, 359 and 255.

Eight more bridges are rated at 7 tons. These are located on county roads 219, 459, 251 (two on this road), 252, 535, 352 and 417.

A one-lane bridge on County Road 32 was recently downgraded from 12 tons to 8 tons. Wearren described this particular bridge as “high, narrow and dangerous.”

“The typical size of a school bus is 12 tons,” he said. “We do know there are still buses crossing 3-ton bridges every day.”

While the study did not indicate which bridges are on school bus routes, it is known that most rescue vehicles weigh much more than 3 tons. Wearren said Wednesday’s fire at the old Chilton County Training School on County Road 425 was a good example of this, because the bridge on that road has a 3-ton limit.

While the county has evaded serious injuries resulting from bridge collapses, Frank Hayes of the Road Department said bridges have given way under the weight of illegal loads.

“We’ve had log trucks go over one and [the bridge] just go down with it,” he said.

Low-rated bridges are an inconvenience to those who follow regulations. One county resident who owned a farm, for example, had to go 14 miles out of the way because his tractor couldn’t cross a nearby bridge.

They are also an inconvenience to the Road Department because the county’s dump trucks are not allowed to cross them, either.

Some people try to use their wits to get around these bridges. People have removed weight limit signs in order to deny knowledge of the limits and escape liability.

“Some think that only one axel is on the bridge at one time,” Wearren added. “But even half the weight of a bus is 6 tons, and that still exceeds the limit.”

The county inspects its bridges every three months. Currently, several are on a list to be replaced with pipe culverts, a cheaper and faster alternative to bridge replacement. This can only be done for small watershed areas, however, Wearren explained.

“As the county population grows and we have more traffic, we need a good bridge system,” he said.

As for funding, the annual allocation of $500,000 in state funding could go toward bridge replacement. This amount requires a 20-percent match from the county.

“The rest would have to come from the county,” Wearren said.