Officials are hoping to settle soon on a demolition plan for the old Ledbetter Bridge on the heels of a swift, substantial drop to the span's decking this week.
Two sections near the west approach decking on the McCracken County side of the bridge began to drop late Tuesday night. The portion sank nearly 2 feet overnight, then fell another 3 or 4 feet Wednesday.
Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Spokesman Keith Todd said there was no additional slippage on the 83-year old bridge span, formally known as the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge, when checked Thursday, and the structure is stable for the immediate future.
Todd said cabinet representatives are weighing several options. They include rebidding the entire demolition, since bids came in $3 million higher than the estimated cost of $5.4 million, or first demolishing the three approach spans that are affected by the slippage, then rebidding the demolition of the remaining bridge.
"We are looking at ways to expedite the process that assures the stability of the bridge," he said. "Our main priority is the safety of the river traffic, and we will remove if possible anything that is potentially hazardous."
The 1930s-era metal bridge, which runs from McCracken County to Livingston County, has been closed to vehicular traffic since last July when the new $66 million bridge opened just upstream.
Employees of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) were in town Thursday to share mapping data about past land slippage in the area with local geological engineers. Todd said after cabinet officials collaborate with the USGS representatives, a decision about the next step for the bridge should be made within a few days.
He stressed that all river travel under the bridge is secure, following the U.S. Coast Guard's closure of the Tennessee River for several hours Wednesday afternoon. The Coast Guard analyzed the main span and determined that a collapse to the first span of the bridge wouldn't affect the remaining portion.
Boat traffic was allowed to continue through the channel spans Wednesday afternoon, with the restriction of no stopping within a quarter mile of either side of the bridge still in place.
Transportation Cabinet engineers Wednesday said the drop was caused by movement on the bluff near the bottom of the pier. Land along the bluff at the base of the approach piers had moved downhill several feet, causing the two approach spans to drop, according to Todd.
George Kipphut, chairman of the department of geosciences at Murray State University, said erosion along a bank is a natural process of all river systems and over 80 years, much of the natural buffering on a waterway's bank will be washed away. He listed other factors that could contribute to slippage, including above average rainfall, deforestation and riverside construction.
McCracken County Emergency Management Director Jerome Mansfield said no evacuations had been ordered of about 10 affected residents primarily on Camelback Road, which runs parallel between the old and new bridges.
He said residents are advised to remain vigilant about land movement, noises or other unusual circumstances and contact the local 911 call center or the emergency management department.
David Casey, a resident of Camelback Road whose family owns 55 acres and four properties adjacent to the river, said he has noticed a steady decline for three to four weeks.
Casey and many of his family members have lived in the area for more than 50 years. During that time, they have had to move one home several hundred feet back from the river, a three-month process, when a previous section of the river bank eroded, he said.
"It's depressing but not a shock to us," Casey said. "We know the river could shift any time, after the next big rain maybe, and more land would go sliding into the river."
He said his family has lost many acres throughout the years and this is the third significant drop of the land section since his family has owned the land.
"You can't do anything about Mother Nature, so if it keeps coming, we will just have to move it (one of the homes) back again," he said.
Contact Kathleen Fox, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or follow @kathleendfox on Twitter.